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Editors: Colin Matthew and others
60 vols Price £7500: online personal subscription £295 per annum
[www.oxforddnb.com] Oxford: Oxford University Press .
Until 1999 I had only a passing acquaintance with the Dictionary of National Biography. In the library, I knew it as one of those works that drag you from the path of duty: when consulting a volume about a particular person you find yourself waylaid by fascinating characters in adjoining pages. Then, to my surprise, I received a missive from Professor Colin Matthew, of Oxford University, inviting me to contribute a piece for the ‘New’ DNB. He asked me to write about a man who had died fifty years ago of whom I knew next to nothing. The instructions were rigorous, especially with regard to the checking of facts, and my 700 words were a week’s work. After acceptance, the piece was edited in a way that left me vaguely unhappy (I am not good at being edited). I signed away my copyright while retaining responsibility for any errors and was rewarded with £70. At this point, my feelings for the ‘New’ DNB were not positive. But they did change greatly for the better over the succeeding years, as newsletters and other messages from the editors persuaded me that I had contributed, along with ten thousand others, to a noble and monumental enterprise. September 2004 saw publication of the completed work, now the ‘Oxford’ DNB, with 50 000 biographies of men and women who helped to shape Britain’s past. Some of the content has been revised from the old DNB, much is new. I had access to the online version.
The search facility allows one to focus on categories such as professions and periods of interest, and I looked for medical people who had been active between the year I qualified (1965) and the cut-off date of 2000. Nearly 400 were listed, beginning with the physiologist Gilbert Smithson Adair and ending with the neuropsychologist Oliver Louis Zangwill. To take the Bs alone, I found such familiar names as David Baum, Denis Burkitt, Josephine Barnes, Russell Brain, Macfarlane Burnet, Aleck Bourne, John Bowlby and Michael Balint. Not all in this company were great and good; part of the fun of the DNB is the acknowledgment that our past was shaped by wicked as well as worthy people. Second among the Bs was John Bodkin Adams (1899–1983), the ‘general practitioner and forger’ acquitted in a famous murder trial. Looking up Foxes in the general list, I came upon an out-and-out villain in the shape of Frederick West the multimurderer (who sometimes used the name); unlike Adams, West seems to have been wholly without redeeming features.
A dictionary of this sort has most to fear from the subjects’ living friends and relatives, with their special knowledge, and a reviewer elsewhere notes several errors of detail in his close circle, including the spelling of his mother-in-law’s name. I too. Consulting the item about a person well known to me I found three names slightly wrong (in two people) and one factual error. The biographical sketch was otherwise admirable in its warmth, wit and balance. Not many private readers of the JRSM will be tempted to purchase the sixty bound volumes of the Oxford DNB, even at the sizeable discounts now offered. The online version seems to me greatly preferable, not only because of the search facilities but also because errors can be corrected. For anyone with half an eye on the past, an online subscription offers much instruction and entertainment at modest cost.