Oct. 18, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 3

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    Professor Emeritus Silverstein dies at 96

    Theodore Silverstein, an eminent scholar of medieval literature, science and poetry who had a second, secret career decoding German radio signals in World War II, died Saturday, Sept. 1, in Chicago. He was 96.

    Silverstein, Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature, was distinguished by both the range of his scholarly achievement––which includes editions of both Old English poetry and Late Latin visionary apocalypses––and his skill at bringing the material to life. He was part of a generation of scholars who “dispensed with the image of the Middle Ages as the ‘dark age’ in the history of Western civilization and brought medieval culture closer to modern concerns,” said Paolo Cherchi, Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures.

    Silverstein led a romantic and eventful life. Born in Liverpool, England, he earned an A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, conducted research in England and France, and taught at Harvard University and the University of Kansas City. At the age of 38, he volunteered for military service and was enrolled in the Air Force, where he worked on material from the top-secret and highly technical ENIGMA project.

    Because he was sworn to silence, his colleagues and his wife were unaware of the details of his career until the recent declassification of the material.His career included stunning mishaps as well as brilliant successes. His former commanding officer, Harry Turkel, wrote that one night, as Silverstein attempted to show him a captured Belgian pistol, the gun accidentally fired: “The bullet hit my wrist, passed through into my groin [and through my testicle] ... I stood up and said to Silverstein, ‘Why you damned fool,’ and turned and walked away ... I staggered a few steps and collapsed at the foot of the stairs.” Yet that same officer later described Silverstein as “the finest intelligence officer in the Western Theater,” a testament to the mettle of both parties.

    After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1946, Silverstein was hired by the University’s English Department, where he taught medieval literature until his retirement in 1973.

    In addition to his work on poetry, Silverstein produced important studies of medieval philosophy and science during his years at Chicago. He compiled a catalog of the medieval scientific writings in the Vatican library, edited a Hermetic text and produced an essay titled “The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris.”

    During his years at Chicago, Silverstein also served as Chairman of the Committee on Ideas and Methods. Broad as it was, Silverstein’s philological work was centered on a few foci. His “Apocalypse of Paul,” an apocryphal work purporting to describe the visions of hell seen by the Apostle Paul, was the subject of a series of articles in the early 1930s, his first book in 1935 and a definitive edition 60 years later, in which he collaborated with the Dutch scholar Anthony Hilhorst.

    Silverstein is survived by his wife, Mary Poindexter Silverstein, his sister Mildred Nollman and his nieces Ellen and Doris Nollman.