Scholar, former UChicago staff member Jeffrey Abt completes book on O.I. founder

Archaeologist James Henry Breasted was so well known during his lifetime that he landed on the cover of Time. When he died in 1935, the last half hour of his memorial service in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was broadcast nationally on radio.           

Yet Breasted, who founded the Oriental Institute in 1919 and was instrumental in promoting understanding of the ancient Middle East for scholars and the public alike, has never been the subject of a comprehensive biography, said Jeffrey Abt, author of the new book, American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute. The University of Chicago Press published the book earlier this month.

“The only other biography of Breasted is Pioneer to the Past, by his son Charles,” Abt said. “It is in part a memoir and gives scant attention to his father’s work after the mid-1920s. Also, because Charles was not a scholar, much of James Breasted’s research is not addressed,” added Abt, who is an associate professor in the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University.

The Oriental Institute will host a talk by Abt on his book at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, in Breasted Hall. Abt will sign copies of his book after the talk, which is free and open to the public.

Breasted's vision helped fulfill William Rainey Harper's

Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute said Breasted had a remarkable impact on archaeology and scholarship generally.

“He single-handedly re-defined modern American archaeological and ancient historical research on the origins of civilization in the ancient Near East,” Stein said. “He also created an entirely new model for scholarship when he established the Oriental Institute in 1919, as an interdisciplinary research center that brought together archaeologists, philologists, ancient historians and art historians under a common roof with a shared mission of discovery.

“Breasted’s intellectual impact was enormous—the excavations and textual work of Oriental Institute researchers revolutionized our understanding of Egypt, Nubia, Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, Persia, and Anatolia. The best tribute to the power of his vision is the fact that almost a century later, the Oriental Institute continues to be a major contributor to the re-discovery of the cradle of civilization.”

American Egyptologist traces Breasted’s life from his boyhood in Rockford and Downers Grove, Ill., through his adventures in the Middle East and his work establishing the Oriental Institute.

Abt said his inspiration for the book was sparked while he was exhibits coordinator in Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library. He was interested in the history of museums and went on to be assistant director and acting director of the Smart Museum of Art before joining the Wayne State faculty in 1989.

Originally, Abt wanted to write about teaching museums and decided to start with the Oriental Institute Museum because of its close proximity. In going through its archives, however, he quickly discovered the wealth of materials on Breasted and became fascinated with the archaeologist’s multi-faceted career.

Breasted, who received his Egyptology PhD in Germany, was the first formally trained American Egyptologist. While he was dashing and adventuresome, he also brought to the University the formidable intellectual gifts and ambitions that helped to fulfill William Rainey Harper’s vision of a research university.

The shy adventurer

Breasted also was skillful in obtaining research grants, earning the trust and friendship of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who—personally and through the Rockefeller philanthropic boards—became Breasted’s principal patron, Abt said.

Yet, despite his ease with the rich and powerful, his many scholarly successes, and his popularity among the public, Breasted was a shy man, Abt points out. “In doing my research, I was especially surprised by two things: Breasted’s shyness and his relationship with organized religion.”

“He had very few close friends,” Abt said. “Charles suggested that this was because his father was shy. Breasted’s correspondence with one of those few close friends, the astronomer George Ellery Hale, confirms this. Indeed, Hale coached Breasted on how to approach potential donors, and a memo I found in one of the Rockefeller foundation archives comments that he was too timid in his grant requests.”

Not long after completing his college degree, Breasted enrolled in a seminary with the intention of entering the ministry, but abandoned that possible career when he found what he considered to be inconsistencies in the Bible.

“Despite Breasted’s religious upbringing, his interest in organized religion began to fade,” Abt said. “Nonetheless, toward the end of his life, he pondered how the knowledge he acquired from his lifelong study of Egyptian civilization and ‘the rise of man’ might be used to provide a new kind of spiritual inspiration for American youth who shared his doubts about traditional religions.”

The result was Breasted’s last major work, The Dawn of Conscience, which looked at the historical origins of human morality, something he called the Age of Character.