Oldfather, William Abbott (1880-1945) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Oldfather, William Abbott (1880-1945)

Historical Note:

William Abbott Oldfather (1880-1945) was associate professor (1909-15); professor of classics (1915-45); head of the Department of Classics (1926-45); and chairman of the Division of Languages and Literature (1935-42) at the University of Illinois (UI). He was an influential leader in early American classical scholarship working in the German tradition of Altertumswissenschaft (science of antiquity).

Oldfather was born on October 23, 1880, in Urumiah, Persia, to American missionary parents Felicia Narcissa Rice and Jeremiah M. Oldfather. The family returned to the United States in 1890, living in Harmony, Indiana, where Oldfather earned a bachelor's degree from Hanover College in 1899. He then matriculated at Harvard University, earning a second bachelor's degree (1901) and a master's degree (1902). From 1903 to 1906, Oldfather worked as an instructor of classics at Northwestern University. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Munich, Germany, in 1908. His dissertation titled Lokrika, marked the beginning of his career-long interest in the culture, history, and topography of Locris, a region of ancient Greece.

At the UI, Oldfather assembled the Classics Library Collection; was chief editor of the monograph series Illinois Studies in Language and Literature (1915-45); and served as curator (1931-45) of the Classical Museum. His studies of the ancient world were marked by rigorous textual studies and bibliography as well as his collaborative, multidisciplinary approach that emphasized historic, economic, and cultural analysis with applications to modern life. He influenced a generation of classicists such as Richmond Lattimore, who were known as the "Oldfather school" (Armstrong 249).

Over the course of his career, Oldfather contributed some 500 articles to the authoritative German series Real-Encyklopadie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, including "Lokris." Oldfather's embrace of the German tradition was epitomized by works such as "Social Conditions and Theories in the Graeco-Roman World" (1909); his now-lost Sather lecture "The Decline of Culture within the Roman Empire," (1933-34) University of California, Berkeley; and his address to the American Philological Association, "Some Ancient Thoughts on Progress and Decadence" (1938). Additional publications include, Ysopet-Avionnet: The Latin and French Texts (1919), a translation of Discourses on Epictetus (1925), Contributions Toward a Bibliography of Epictetus (1927), Index Apvleianvs (1934), Index verborum Ciceronis Epistularum (with H. V. Canter and K. M. Abbott, 1938), and Studies in the text tradition of St. Jerome's Vitae partum (as editor, 1943).

Oldfather married Margaret Agnes Giboney in 1902, and together they had two daughters. Oldfather was an avid hiker and outdoorsman, who, in 1901, founded the University of Illinois Walking Club that met Saturdays each week. During one of the club's outings on May 27, 1945, he drowned when his canoe capsized, leaving behind as many as eleven unfinished works.


Michael Armstrong, "A German Scholar and Socialist in Illinois: The Career of William Abbott Oldfather," The Classical Journal 88, no. 3 (February/March 1993): pp. 235-253, accessed May 15, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3297497?seq=1.

"Classics, adventure, and a renowned scholar," Illinois LAS, accessed May 15, 2020, https://las.illinois.edu/news/2019-09-06/classics-adventure-and-renowned-scholar.

"Oldfather, William Abbott," Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, accessed May 15, 2020, https://dbcs.rutgers.edu/all-scholars/8985-oldfather-william-abbott.

Wikipedia, s.v. "William Abbott Oldfather," accessed May 15, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Abbott_Oldfather.

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