Alice Elizabeth Kober
December 23, 1906
|Died||May 16, 1950 (aged 43)|
Brooklyn, New York City
|Alma mater||Hunter College, Columbia University|
Life and career
The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Kober was born in Yorkville, a neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She attended Hunter College High School, and in the summer of 1924, she placed third in a New York City scholarship contest. The $100-a-year prize helped her to attend Hunter College, where she majored in Latin, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude. She earned a master's degree in classics at Columbia University in 1929 and a PhD in 1932.
While working on her doctorate, Kober taught at Hunter High and Hunter College and, in 1930, became an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, where she remained for the rest of her career. A former student, Eva Brann, wrote that Kober was "aggressively nondescript....Her figure dumpy with sloping shoulders, her chin heavily determined, her hair styled for minimum maintenance, her eyes behind bottle-bottom glasses snapped impatiently and twinkled not unkindly." On campus she shared an office with four other faculty members and served on standard committees. After teaching herself Braille, she also brailled textbooks, library materials, and final exams for blind students at Brooklyn College. Kober lived with her widowed mother and, so far as is known, never had a romantic partner.
Beginning in the 1930s, Kober privately studied Linear B, as yet an undeciphered script of an unidentified Aegean language of the Bronze Age, keeping massive statistics on 180,000 hand-cut cards and tabulations in forty notebooks. Kober used a hand punch to create a kind of "database, with the punched holes marking the parameters on which the data could be sorted." She also mastered a host of languages, ancient and modern, including Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Tocharian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Basque and Chinese. From 1942 to 1945, while teaching full-time in Brooklyn, she commuted weekly by train to Yale to take classes in advanced Sanskrit. She also studied field archeology in New Mexico.
In 1946, Kober received a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship to study Linear B full-time. Making the acquaintance of John Linton Myres, she gained access to many more Linear B inscriptions collected by the archaeologist of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, and hand copied most of them at Oxford University in 1947. Kober's major discovery was that Linear B was an inflected language, difficult to write in a syllabic script.
Further progress in deciphering the language was delayed by her renewed teaching duties and the thankless job of proofreading and correcting Myres's Scripta Minoa. A chain smoker, Kober died, probably of cancer, in 1950 at the age of 43. After her death, the architect Michael Ventris built on Kober's work and with some inspired guesses deciphered the script in 1952, establishing that it was Mycenaean Greek.
Correspondence and papers
Kober's extensive correspondence and papers, including support for her search for inflections in Linear B, are available online at the Program for Aegean Scripts & Prehistory (PASP) at the University of Texas at Austin: Alice E. Kober Papers.
References and sources
- Kober collection
- Fox, 90.
- Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, chapter four, location 1149 of the Kindle edition
- Fox, 91.
- Fox, 91.
- Eva Brann, "In Memoriam: Alice E. Kober," unpublished manuscript, University of Texas, Austin, quoted in Fox, 91.
- Fox, 109-100.
- Fox, 92.
- Fox, 93, 104-06.
- Fox, 108.
- Fox, 115.
- Fox, 113.
- Fox, 128.
- Fox, 134.
- Fox, 178.
- Fox, 191. A much younger cousin said that it was whispered in the family that she had died of a rare form of stomach cancer.
- Gallafent, Alex (5 June 2013). "Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B". BBC News. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
- Fox, Margalit (2013). The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. Ecco. ISBN 978-0062228833.
- Alice Kober at the Database of Classical Scholars
- Archives revive interest in forgotten life
- Biography of Alice Kober by Laura A. Voight at Women in Old World Archaeology. Archived here.
- May 11, 2013 New York Times profile of Kober
- Ventris & Kober archive at Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory University of Texas at Austin
- Alice Kober Papers at the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory University of Texas at Austin