Sawyers, June Skinner, "James H. Breasted", in, Chicago Portraits, Biographies of 250 Famous Chicagoans, Chicago; Loyola University Press, 1991

pp. 36 - 37

facsimile / transcription. of a book excerpt

James H. Breasted


born: August 27, 1865

Rockford, Illinois

died: December 2,1935

New York, New York

A brilliant scholar of Egyptology, James Henry Breasted held the first chair of Egyptology in the United States. He was professor of Egyptology and Oriental History at the University of Chicago from 1894 to 1925 and founded the Oriental Institute Museum in 1919.

The second child of Charles and Harriet Newell Garrison, Breasted spent his early childhood in Rockford, Illinois. In 1873 his parents bought a seven- acre tract in Downers Grove and built a small house. He entered North- Western (now North Central) College in Naperville at the age of fifteen and then served an apprenticeship in a pharmacy owned by his brother- in- law in Rochelle, Illinois. From 1882 to 1886 Breasted attended the Chicago College of Pharmacy. In 1886 his brother- in- law offered him a position as prescription clerk at his store in Omaha, Nebraska. Breasted accepted. Not satisfied by the pharmaceutical profession, he returned to Downers Grove the following year and decided to pursue another line of study.

In 1888 Breasted enrolled at the Congregational Institute (now the Chicago Theological Seminary) to study Hebrew and the Scriptures under Dr. Samuel Ives Curtiss. Determined to master Hebrew, he also taught himself Greek, Latin, Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform, ancient Egyptian, French, German, and a smattering of Italian. At this point, he realized that a life in the ministry was not for him, and he changed course again in order to devote his life to the study of Oriental history and languages.

In 1890 Breasted transferred to Yale to study under William Rainey Harper. Harper suggested Breasted accept a chair in Egyptology at the newly proposed University of Chicago, of which Harper had just been named president. Breasted graduated from Yale in 1892 and, two years later, received his Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Berlin. Berlin was, at that time, the teaching and research center of the world in Oriental languages. He was at the top of his field but he felt scared, lonely, and confused, according to his son and biographer Charles Breasted. Recalling his Berlin days forty years later Breasted mused, "I shall never forget the dark shadow of uncertainty that always hung over me--uncertainty as to my own ability to make good and about following a science of which there was not a single professorship or post of any kind in any American university."

Breasted returned to the United States in 1894 and became an assistant in Egyptology at the University of Chicago. In 1905 he became professor of Egyptology and Oriental history, the first chair in that subject in America.

In the early days, according to Charles Breasted, Egyptology was, at best, a maddeningly inaccurate science, full of half truths and populated by a "handful of competent" scholars who often disagreed among themselves over even the most fundamental of matters.

During the early years of this century Breasted worked primarily in Europe, developing with other colleagues a dictionary of ancient languages. Collecting and collating some ten thousand historical documents, he produced A History of Egypt in 1905 and the five- volume Ancient Records of Egypt in 1907.

Breasted mounted his first major expedition to Egypt in 1905. In 1912 he published Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt and then wrote, with James Harvey Robinson, several high school textbooks: Outlines of European History (1914) and Ancient Times: A History of the Early World (1916). Following the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 in Egypt, Breasted began working closely, mainly as a consultant, with the English archaeologist and noted Egyptologist Howard Carter and English aristocrat Lord Carnarvon, who financed the excavations. The discovery of the ancient Egyptian king's tomb fascinated the American public and, indeed, fired the imagination of people throughout the world. All the artifacts taken from the tomb are in the Cairo Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

In 1919 the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago was founded with a grant from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In 1923 Breasted became the first archaeologist to be elected into the National Academy of Sciences. Two years later he began to devote all of his time to the institute and its various research projects

His other writings include Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting (1924), The Conquest of Civilization (1926), and The Dawn of Conscience ( 1933).

Breasted died from a throat infection at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City in December of 1935.

Breasted, who lived at 5811 South Dorchester Avenue in Hyde Park, played a significant role in the growth and development of Egyptology and the museum he founded, the Oriental Institute, is an internationally recognized pioneer in the history and study of Egypt and the Near East.

The museum, located at 1155 East 58th Street, houses objects from Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Persia, Syria, and Palestine, and is considered one of the foremost centers of Egyptology in the world today. Most of the objects in the museum's collection were discovered by institute scholars during archaeological excavations.

See also: William Rainey Harper

Further reading: Breasted, Charles B. Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist (1943); Dawson, Warren R. Who Was Who in Egyptology (1972).