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The Life of John Chadwick

John Chadwick, 1920 - 1998: Classical Philologist, Lexicographer and Linear B Scholar

John Chadwick was born on 21 May 1920 in Surrey. He attended St. Paul’s School and came up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1939.

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, 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 1951), 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, and their son, Anthony, was born in 1954. In 1950 Chadwick, together with his cousin W. N. Mann, published his first scholarly work, an edition of The Medical Works of Hippocrates. The edition was adopted by the Penguin Classics series, and is still in print more than half a century later.

In 1952 Chadwick applied for, and was given, a post as University Assistant Lecturer in Classical Philology, to begin in October of that year. Part of his duties would be to give a series of lectures on the Greek dialects, and it was while preparing for these that he saw an announcement of a radio broadcast: Michael Ventris would be speaking on Linear B on the BBC Third Programme on July 1st. Chadwick had maintained his early interest in Linear B, and was in touch with Sir John Myres, who was responsible for the publication of the Knossos tablets in Scripta Minoa II; but his job working on the Oxford Latin Dictionary had left little time to keep up with the latest work on the script, so he was an eager listener to Ventris’ broadcast. When Ventris claimed that Linear B was, after all, an early form of Greek, Chadwick knew he needed to see Ventris’ results – as he wrote to Ventris later, “I shall be lecturing on the Greek Dialects, and it will be very nice if I can start with an account of your decipherment and some remarks on Mycenaean Greek”.

For the next four years the two worked together on Linear B, producing two joint publications: an article giving an account of the decipherment and its results (‘Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1953), and a book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, giving a fuller explanation of the script and language, as well as a commentary on 300 selected Linear B texts. Their letters from this period show a process of close collaboration: each would read and comment on every piece of the other’s work; if one thought of a possible new interpretation of a text, he would rush to send the other a postcard explaining it.

Ventris’ death in September 1956 was a great blow to Chadwick, who had lost his colleague, friend, and ally in the task of winning over the decipherment’s critics. For the rest of his career, however, he continued to make important contributions to the field of Mycenology. His best-known works include the second edition of Documents, published in 1973, and two popular works, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958) and The Mycenaean World (1976); but he also produced a vast number of articles on the Linear B script, the Mycenaean Greek dialect, the workings of the palace administrations, and many more related topics. He was also a central figure in the five-yearly Mycenaean Colloquia, the first held in April 1956 in Gif-sur-Yvette, near Paris; these Colloquia acted (and still act) as a forum for scholars around the world to present their research into Linear B and related topics. Chadwick was also responsible for supervising and encouraging many young Linear B scholars who are now among the world’s leading experts in the field.

Chadwick’s work, however, also extended far beyond Linear B. He published articles on later Greek dialectology; he taught and lectured on a wide variety of Classical and philological subjects; he maintained his interest in lexicography, working on projects such as the supplement to the Liddell Scott Jones Greek Lexicon and a lexicon of the Latin used by the eighteenth-century religious writer Emanuel Swedenborg (of whose New Church Chadwick was a life-long member). He also set up the Greek Lexicon Project, aimed at providing a new lexicon for students of Greek, which is still ongoing. Even after his retirement in 1984 Chadwick was to be found most days in the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room, continuing his research, writing books and articles, and keeping up correspondence with scholars all over the world; even requests for information from complete strangers would always receive a reply. On November 24th 1998, aged 78, Chadwick died of a heart attack at Royston station on his way to a meeting in London.

Among the many honorary degrees and awards Chadwick received in his lifetime was the 1997 International Antonio Feltrinelli Prize, awarded by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome to the most distinguished scholars in the arts and sciences worldwide. Chadwick generously donated this award to the University of Cambridge to establish the John Chadwick Greek and Latin Research Fund, which is managed within the Faculty of Classics. The income of the fund has been used to make small grants to support the following: work on the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room’s archival collection (including the digitisation of the Pylos tablet photographs [link to database] and the Ventris-Chadwick correspondence, and the 2003 exhibition on the decipherment in the Fitzwilliam Museum); the Greek Lexicon Project; the creation of a database of the Celtic personal names of Roman Britain (CPNRB); the use of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room by internationally recognised scholars; and the publication of Greek and Latin from an Indo-European Perspective (Cambridge Philological Society, 2007) and the forthcoming third edition of Documents in Mycenaean Greek. This wide range of projects supported in part by the Chadwick Fund is an apt reflection of the wide range of scholarly interests pursued by Chadwick himself.



  • J. Killen & A. Morpurgo-Davies, ‘John Chadwick 1920-1998’, Proceedings of the British Academy 115, pp.133-165 (2002)
  • Ventris-Chadwick Correspondence [‘Ventris-Chadwick Correspondence’ page], Mycenaean Epigraphy Room

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