The Creation of the OI

As interest in the study of the ancient Middle East grew, Professor Breasted became increasingly aware of his need for a patron who would provide him dedicated funds to pursue his research. President Harper and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had an essential alliance that allowed the University of Chicago to flourish in its early decades. Breasted and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. found their common ground through a mutual appreciation of the subject at hand. Direct contact between these two men, however, did not occur until Breasted decided to seize the possibilities afforded by the end of WWI and apply for a grant to survey the Middle East. The grant he applied for was sponsored by the Rockefellers. In support of his Institute, Breasted laid out an intricate and practical plan. The metaphor that ran through his plan was a celestial one and the idea that would be at the foundation of his Institute was that of a vast archive. Evoking images of the stars, Breasted claimed that you cannot have the OI without its archive because the true dream of the scholar who studies the ancient Middle East is of a central repository where artifacts, documents, photographs, ephemera, and texts could be gathered together under one roof, much like an astronomer’s observatory. He writes, “It is evident that the methods and the equipment of the natural sciences should be applied to the study of man, and that the vast body of documents he has left behind must be as systematically gathered, filed and employed as are the observations of the astronomer.” (Breasted, February 18, 1919). Rockefeller agreed and with his support, Breasted and President Harry Pratt Judson established the Oriental Institute in 1919.

James Breasted in his Haskell Office

Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives.