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Richard J. Kent '34 | Frederic Cassidy '30 | Tom Linehan | William Brashear '68

Noted papyrologist spent career in Berlin

William Brashear '68

1947 - 2000


One of the world's leading scholars of ancient papyrus fragments, William Brashear found his passion at Oberlin.

While in high school, he wanted nothing more than to become a professional French horn player. His guidance counselor cautioned him not to be too hasty in his career choices and suggested that Mr. Brashear might do well in a vocation that made use of his aptitude for learning languages. The counselor's statement proved prophetic, and Mr. Brashear soon began a career as one of the foremost papyrologists in the world, aided by his knowledge of over two dozen languages.

Born in Ithaca, New York, it was a love of music that drew Mr. Brashear to Oberlin, but once there, he discovered a passion in the classics. He went on to earn MA and PhD degrees at the University of Michigan, and did graduate work at the Free University of Berlin. In 1971, he began working at the newly opened Agyptisches (Egyptian) Museum in Berlin and later became chief papyrologist at that institution. On several occasions, he was invited by the Chinese government to serve as a visiting professor of classics.

A gifted and dedicated scholar, Mr. Brashear spent nearly 30 years caring for and studying the museum's collection of ancient papyrus fragments. He published numerous articles and books on the subject, including a ground-breaking identification of a fragment that indicated the presence of the cult of Mithras (a savior/ god worshipped throughout the Roman world) in Egypt, a presence that had never before been proven. His most recent work, Wednesday's Child is Full of Woe (noted in OAM's Spring 2000 issue), is a philological and iconographical study of the development of the Seven Deadly Sins from ancient Babylonia to present-day modern art, based upon a new interpretation of an ancient Greek papyrus text.

Mr. Brashear's work brought him a brief brush with fame. In 1997 two American scholars identified several fragments in the collection that Mr. Brashear cared for as belonging to a previously unknown Christian Gospel. A bemused Mr. Brashear found himself besieged by the German media, and his picture was featured on television and on the front page of several newspapers. Mr. Brashear dealt with the media barrage with his characteristic good humor, despite having to, in his word, "wear a tie to work for the first time in 25 years."

Mr. Brashear died in Berlin on February 2, 2000, at the age of 53. He is survived by his mother, brother, and sister, and by a body of work that rivals that of any in his field.


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