1920 - 1998
Classical Philologist, Lexicographer and Co-decipherer of Linear B
John Chadwick was born on 21 May 1920 in Surrey. He attended school at St. Paul’s School and came up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1939.
After the fall of France in 1940 he left university to volunteer for the Royal Navy, where he served as an Ordinary and later an Able Seaman on HMS Coventry. In 1942 he was transferred to intelligence duties based in Alexandria, Egypt, and set to work on breaking lower-level Italian naval codes. He knew no Italian at the time and did not even have access to a dictionary, but was told that his knowledge of Latin should allow him to cope! In 1944 he was transferred to Bletchley Park (“Station X”), given a crash-course in Japanese, and set to work on reading the encoded messages sent by the Japanese naval representatives in Stockholm and Berlin.
After the end of the war in 1945, Chadwick resumed his studies at Corpus. The university allowed him to count his five years of war service as one university year, so he finished his course in the next eight months (October — May), graduating with First Class Honours in Classics Part II, with a distinction in his special subject Linguistics.
While at Corpus, he made his first attempts, together with some of his student friends, to apply cryptographic methods to the “Minoan Linear Script B”, as it was then called. He and his friends were already aware at the time of the work of Michael Ventris. But as any good cryptographer knows, one needs a minimum critical mass of data to decipher an unknown code and at the time there simply had not been enough published (this situation was not to change until 1950), so they set aside the problem for the time being.
After finishing his degree, Chadwick became an Editorial Assistant on the new Oxford Latin Dictionary. He married Joan Hill in 1947. In 1950 he published his first scholarly work, an edition of The Medical Works of Hippocrates, together with his cousin W. N(eville) Mann, a distinguished physician whom Chadwick had spent some time with while they were both on duty in the Mediterranean. The edition was adopted by the Penguin Classics series, and is still in print more than half a century later.