Pioneer to the Past: The Life and Times of James Henry Breasted

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WTTW profiles the young and gifted scholar who founded the Oriental Institute with an initial excavation of 2300 artifacts. Born in Rockford and raised in Downers Grove, Breasted benefited greatly from the support of the University of Chicago’s founding president, William Rainey Harper, who encouraged him to take up the new specialty of Egyptology.

Most widely known for his coinage of the term “the Fertile Crescent,” which describes the area from Egypt to Mesopotamia, Breasted became the first American to receive a Ph.D. and professorship in Egyptology in the United States. Recognized as a scholar of great intellect and blessed with tremendous charisma, Breasted was able to expound upon the value and relevance of ancient Near Eastern studies in a way that transformed influential listeners into loyal supporters. Breasted’s primary supporter, John D. Rockefeller Jr., enabled Breasted to make the Oriental Institute a place of unparalleled breadth and resources in the academic world. Between his long-term relationship with Rockefeller, and his expansive vision for scientific understanding of the ancient Near East, Breasted created an institution that, to this day, is a global leader in the archaeological, historical, and linguistic study of the ancient Near East.

These productions of WTTW-11, generously underwritten by ComEd, An Exelon Company and LaSalle Bank. For more information, visit their Website at

For further information about James Henry Breasted, refer to Jan. 5-11, Jan. 12-18, Jan. 19-25, Jan. 26-Feb. 1, Feb. 2-8, Feb. 9-15, and Feb. 16-22, 2000 issues of The Rock River Times. This seven-part series by Susan Johnson explores the life and works of Breasted, specifically focusing on the Egyptologist’s role in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Breasted also translated the Sumerian alphabet. Ancient Sumeria is today Iraq.

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