James Henry Breasted

Portrait of James Henry Breasted
James Henry Breasted
University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, Archival Photographic Files, apf1-06024
James Henry Breasted, archaeologist and director of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute (1901-1935).

Born in Rockford, IL in 1865, James Henry Breasted was appointed to the first professorship in Egyptology in the United States at the University of Chicago in 1905 by University President William Rainey Harper. His connection to the University of Chicago began when he earned a master’s degree at Yale University from 1890 to 1891. It was there that he met his mentor, William Rainey Harper, who encouraged him to study Egyptology in Berlin under the leading Egyptologist of the day, Adolf Erman. While completing his doctorate in Germany he met and married Frances Hart in 1894. Their honeymoon was spent in Egypt acquiring artifacts for the Haskell Oriental Museum, work that was commissioned by the newly appointed president—and mentor of Breasted—William Rainey Harper. Upon returning to Chicago, they had three children together: Charles, James Jr., and Astrid, but their married life was always entwined with Breasted’s scholarly pursuits. Hart, a trained musician herself, supported her husband’s career by documenting it closely and traveling with him to sites across the Middle East whenever possible. Approximately one year after her death, Breasted married her sister, Imogene. It was upon returning to the United States, after their honeymoon trip, that Breasted contracted the streptococcus virus (strep throat) and died in New York on December 2, 1935. The professional and personal relationships that Breasted fostered nationally and internationally were significant for the scholarly landscape of the university. It is because of these partnerships, the creation of the Haskell Oriental Museum, and ultimately the OI in 1919 that the study of Egyptology and the ancient Middle East flourished at the University of Chicago throughout the twentieth century.