After reading the first half of the novel The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, I can see the common archetype of a genius with mental health issues being portrayed by the main character William Chester Minor. In this post, I will be talking about Minors life, mental health issues, and, most importantly, focusing on what he does and doesn’t have in common with another famous genius who faces mental health issues.
Insanity is defined as the state of being seriously mentally ill or extreme foolishness or irrationality. On the other hand, genius is defined as an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity (Oxford English Dictionary.) While nowadays calling someone with mental health issues insane is seen as offensive, in the 1800’s that was about all they were called.
When thinking of an insane genius, most people think of the character Sherlock Holmes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery novels, or from the BBC television show based off the novels. Holmes is described as a sociopath who struggles to deal with normal human emotions and avoids making attachments to others (Sinicki.) The strongest reason why people think Sherlock Holmes is a sociopath is because he said it himself in the television series, saying “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high functioning sociopath”. Even though he said it himself, many psychologists argue that that is not the case, and he has a different mental health issue. Although the exact issue is still up for debate, it is evident that Sherlock Holmes has some sort of mental health problem.
William Chester Minor, born in 1834, was one of the leading contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. These contributions being made during his time in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, after being diagnosed as delusional. His story was practically unknown until the writing of the novel The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester ,where the story of his life was written for the world to read.
So there we have it, two men, both geniuses, and both suffering from mental health issues. Yes, there is the small detail of Sherlock Holmes not being real, but his story can help us to understand the tragic life of W. C. Minor.
You see, while he is antisocial, bad with people, and potentially insane, Sherlock Holmes is a beloved character. While when the novels were released, Holmes’ signs of mental health issues were probably overlooked by the reader, a modern reader (or viewer of the television series) feels bad for his lack of social skills, and when he shows signs of mental health issues, they feel sorry for him and wish they could help. Sadly, they can’t, because he is just a character, a work of fiction.
This desire to help people with mental health issues is a very new way of thinking. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that people started to actually help and properly treat people with mental health issues, and the stigma over them still exists to this day. For Minor, living in the 1800’s resulted in a lack of understanding of mental health issues. When someone was diagnosed with a mental issue, they were put in mental hospitals, otherwise known as lunatic asylums. Here, they would be subjected to controversial treatments, abuse, and a lack of real help (Science Museum.)
This became W. C. Minor’s life, he went from a respected civil war veteran to a man living alone in Lambeth Marsh in Victorian London, to a man kept in an insane asylum. He didn’t let this stop him though. He sent in his contributions to what would become one of the biggest achievements in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary.
So, why, when we think of a genius suffering with mental health issues, does everyone think of a fictional character over a real life man, when both of their stories happened at roughly the same time? The answer is simple. People have heard of Sherlock Holmes, but the story of William Chester Minor is unknown to most. But why is that?
The answer to that question is what truly helps us to understand the tragedy that is the life of W. C. Minor. You see, when a person would go to an asylum for mental health issues, it was not only to “help” them, but to hide them from society. Mark Davis, a photographer who spent over six years travelling to these asylums, stated that “These buildings and its patients were often hidden from the public. It is important for us to remember these asylums in order for us to ensure we do not make the same mistakes”, words which emphasize the dangers of keeping the insane asylums a secret.
Since the majority of the society in the 1800’s had probably not known about these asylums, there was no one who was able to fight for the rights of the mentally ill. The only ones who truly knew the horrors of the asylums were the workers and the patients (Broad 2014.) Nowadays, many people know those horrors, which is why we have none today. But what does this all have to do with Minor? While the horrors of the asylums were kept secret, so were many of the patients. They would be taken from society, and society would move on. His contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary should have made his name fairly well known, but he was too busy being held in the asylum to actually go out in public and mingle with the other contributors and spread his name.
This is not all we can learn from the comparison of Holmes and Minor.
Mental health issues can be caused in more than one way. Some people seem to be born with it, while others acquire it at some point in their lives, often due to a traumatic or emotional event. What Holmes has seems to be described as something he was born with, when the books would speak of his past it appeared as though he had had all of his symptoms his whole life. Minor, while not known for sure, likely acquired his mental health issues throughout his life. While being born with mental health issues can lead to a very difficult life, Holmes had his family with him during his childhood and was able to learn cope with his issues. He had a sort of support system.
Minor, on the other hand, was alone. After being forced to retire from the army, Minor boarded a boat to London, where he lived alone until February 17th, 1872, when Minor’s mental health issues led him to shoot a man, and after that he was sent to the asylum (Winchester.) Although there is no way to know for sure when Minor’s mental health issues started, it has been suggested that “perhaps the mental condition from which he was suffering had been caused by exposure to the sun in Florida … perhaps it had merely been aggravated by it … perhaps it was all due to the man’s exposure to was, a consequence of the horrors that he had witnessed” (Winchester 72), the most likely cause of the suggestions being the exposure to war. War is known to cause many mental health issues, and it was during the war when Minors state seemed to decline. If it is true that it was during the war when his condition worsened, that means he faced his problems alone, without the support system Sherlock Holmes seemed to have, and he didn’t have his whole life to learn how to cope with his issues. This lack of help could be the reason why Minor’s mental health issues led him to murder.
To conclude, in comparing W. C. Minor to Sherlock Holmes, it is easy to see they both portray the archetype of a genius who struggles with mental health issues. However, it is comparing their differences that tells us more about them, specifically revealing more about who Minor was and why his life and legacy ended up being what they were.
For more information on mental heath, check out these links:
http://www.cmha.ca/ – The Canadian Mental Health Association
http://teenmentalhealth.org/ – Teen Mental Health
If you or someone you know needs mental health help, visit the Ontario Mental Health Helpline at http://www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca/
Broad, Ian. “Abandoned wheelchairs, padded cells and rusty syringes: Chilling images from inside Britain’s long-lost lunatic asylums left to rot.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 04 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Legacies – Myths and Legends – England – Berkshire – Broadmoor’s word-finder – Article Page 1.” BBC. BBC, n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
Murray, James A. H. Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971. Print.
“Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine.” Mental institutions. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Sherlock Holmes Quiz.” Playbuzz. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2017.
Sinicki, Adam. “A Psychological Assessment of Sherlock Holmes.” HealthGuidance.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
Winchester, Simon. The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016. Print.