I contributed the following biographical entry on William Foxwell Albright to the American National Biography.
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ALBRIGHT, William Foxwell (24 May 1891-19 September 1971), orientalist, was born in Coquimbo, Chile, the son of Wilber Finley Allbright and Zephine Viola Foxwell, Methodist missionaries.
William, as well as his five siblings, received most of his early education from his mother. Extremely poor eyesight and a crippled right hand resulting from a farm accident curtailed normal physical activity and promoted intellectual pursuit. At age twelve he returned to Iowa and attended public school. After receiving his A.B. degree from Upper Iowa University in 1912 he briefly served as the principle for a small high school in the German speaking town of Menno, South Dakota. In 1913 he moved to Baltimore to study at the Oriental Seminary of Johns Hopkins University under scholar Paul Haupt. In 1916 he received his Ph.D. and remained to teach Akkadian and Arabic. In 1918 he was drafted and served for a short time in the United States Army limited-service. In 1919 Albright went to Palestine as a Thayer Fellow to pursue research at the American Schools of Oriental Research. At the end of his year of study he remained in Palestine as Acting Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The following year he was named Director. It was at this time that he was wed to Dr. Ruth Norton, herself an expert in Sanskrit. They had four children. Albright continued as Director of the ASOR until 1929 when he returned to Baltimore to become a professor of Semitic Languages at Johns Hopkins University. Beginning in 1933 Albright split his time equally between Johns Hopkins and Palestine where he resumed duties as Director of the ASOR. This arrangement ended in 1935 when he resigned from the ASOR to give full attention to his duties as the W. W. Spencer Chair in Semitic Language at John Hopkins. Albright continued in this position until 1958 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 67. After retiring, Albright lectured extensively and served as visiting professor at numerous universities and seminaries.
As an Orientalist, Albright made significant contributions to a number of fields related to Near East studies including archeology, Biblical studies, Semitic languages, and history. For his involvement in Palestinian archeology when it was still in its early stages he received the informal title “Dean of American Archeology”. He pursued archeological field work throughout the Middle East including major excavations at Tel el-Ful and Tel Beit Mirsim. As a student he had accepted the higher critical theories taught by his mentor, Paul Haupt, but his archeological investigations led him to reject Julius Wellhausen’s theory of evolutionary development and affirm the historical reliability of the Old Testament. This theoretical change was characteristic of Albright who often modified his interpretations of history and religion as new evidence became available. His influence can be observed in the flexibility of modern ethnohistoriography which attempts to marry archeological artifact with the ethnographic record and assumes the necessity of a new synthesis when additional data is recovered.
He received some measure of notoriety for his role in authenticating the Dead Sea Scrolls, being one of the first scholars to accurately date them.
Albright was a humanitarian as well as a humanist. He assisted scholars fleeing Nazi persecution in finding academic positions in the United States, defended those effected by ethnic and racial quotas in educational institutions, and lobbied for equal rights for minorities.
Albright served as an officer of five different learned societies and actively participated in many others. He received numerous honors and awards including twenty-seven honorary doctorates. He published his first scholarly article in 1913 and continued to publish throughout his busy career. A book-length bibliography of Albright’s published work contains 1083 listings. Equally impressive is the long list of Albright’s students who have themselves become authorities in various fields of Near Eastern studies. His influence continues to multiply generationally. In recognition of his contribution to Near Eastern studies the American School in Jersusalem was renamed the W. F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research prior to his death in Balitmore.
Contributed by Kevin E. Stilley
For those interested in the specifics of Albright’s archeological field work, Albright documents the excavation at Tel Beit Mirsim in his three volume The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim (1933) and more briefly in the early chapters of The Archeology of Palestine and the Bible (1933), second edition. To explore his broad understanding of archeology and its relation to Biblical studies consult his Archeology and the Religion of Israel (1953), third edition. From the Stone Age to Christianity (1957), revised reprint, and Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968) lay out Albright’s philosophy of Palestinian history and will be helpful for the reader interested in his opposition to Wellhausen theory. For an autobiographal sketch of Albright’s first half-century see his History, Archeology, and Christian Humanism (1964) which contains in an appendix a sketch previously published in American Spiritual Autobiographies (1948). A more extensive account of his life can be found in William Foxwell Albright (1975), which is a biography written by David Noel Freedman and Leona Glidden Running; two of his students who later became close colleagues. For a critical appraisal of his work consult The Scholarship of William Foxwell Albright (1989), edited by Gus W. Van Beek. A complete bibliography of Albright’s published works has been compiled by David Noel Freedman in a monograph The Published Works of William Foxwell Albright: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1975).