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Science: After Breasted

3 minute read

The vast learning and unquenchable enthusiasm of James Henry Breasted built up the greatest archeological empire in the Near East, with a dozen armies of diggers at work all around the “Fertile Crescent” from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Valley. So able was he in infecting other men with his passion that for Breasted and the University of Chicago John D. Rockefeller Jr. founded the Oriental Institute with an endowment of some $13,000,000 (TIME, Dec. 14, 1931). From that ornate building which houses one of the 40-ton stone bulls of Sargon II, the rosy, white-haired little man, too old to dig, directed his legions in the field, kept track of the dispositions of natives and their governments, religious prejudices, malarial sectors, progress of rival diggers. But he was not satisfied to move colored pins about on a map. Every year he visited his digging parties by airplane. Homing wearily from his last trip, James Henry Breasted came down with a streptococcus infection on shipboard, died in Manhattan, left his Institute directorless (TIME, Dec. 9).

In 1923 a dark, serious young man named John Albert Wilson went to Chicago to study under the famed Orientalist. Born in Pawling, N. Y., he had graduated from Princeton, got a teaching job at American University in Beirut, Syria, grew so fond of visiting archeological sites in his rattletrap automobile that he once had to walk the 18 miles from Bab to Aleppo in pitch darkness because in his eagerness to be off he had not properly strapped on his spare gasoline supply. After John Wilson got Chicago’s Ph. D. in Egyptology, Breasted sent him on an expedition to Luxor as epigrapher. For five years he stayed in Egypt. When the heat grew so intense that even the flies died, he fled to Berlin and Munich for more study, went back to Chicago to become assistant professor of Egyptology, associate professor, scientific secretary of the Institute. Last week the Institute’s board announced that John Albert Wilson had been appointed acting director. About July 1 the “acting” will be dropped from his title.

The man who, at 36, will henceforth decide when and where the Institute’s parties shall dig reads hieroglyphics for relaxation, sometimes detective stories. He is married, has three children. Though Director Wilson, like his predecessor, has delved in the tomb of TutankhAmen, he is unimpressed by the tabloid demonology which would put him under a Pharaoh’s “curse.” In fact, he points out, insurance actuaries marvel at the ripe old age at which most Egyptologists die.

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