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Albert Henrichs, Scholar of Greek Literature, Dies at 74

By Archie J.W. Hall, Crimson Staff Writer

Albert Henrichs, a globally-renowned scholar of Greek literature and religion, died April 16. He was 74.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Henrichs was just 26 when he made his first major academic discovery.

“He took four lumps of leather in a cigar case from Cologne through to Vienna, and gave them to the conservator there to try and unpeel them,” recalled Kathleen M. Coleman, a Classics professor.

What Henrichs unveiled was a codex that detailed the origins of the Manichean religion, an early rival to Christianity, in far more detail than was previously known. Following this breakthrough, Henrichs was also the first to assemble and translate 46 fragments of papyrus from Cologne, which turned out to contain portions of an ancient Greek novel, called the “Phoinikika,” or “Phoenician Saga.”

This novel included “a hugely exciting scene of cannibalism,” in which, as Coleman described it, “the protagonist joined a band of robbers in Egypt and they murdered a boy, took out his heart, roasted it, applied olive oil and seasonings, cut it up, and ate it to swear an oath of allegiance to the gang.”

Henrichs joined the faculty at Harvard at age 30, and taught until just two months before his death. The 10th Eliot Professor of Greek Literature, much of Henrichs's later work was concerned with understanding the Greek god Dionysus and the role of the Chorus and dance in Greek tragedy. His colleague in the Classics department and former student David F. Elmer ‘98 described him as a “world authority on Greek religion.”

Henrich’s role in the Classics faculty was immense, Elmer said. He recalled that “the last thing that he was doing before he succumbed to his illness was reading an undergraduate thesis that he felt very interested in, because he had worked with that student before.”

Set to retire after the spring 2017 semester, Henrichs nevertheless taught a class on Herodotus with “heroic effort” this semester, his student Denis Fedin ’17 recalled.

“He had a tremendous joie de vivre, a love of life and of living. He was an extremely joyful person. A lot of the joy and pleasure in his life came from his love for the Greeks, he was truly fascinated by Greek culture,” Elmer said. “My bedside reading is usually some kind of novel or something like that, his was Demosthenes or Euripides.”

Henrichs insisted on addressing all of his students as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” because “he felt that if students were going to address him as Professor Henrichs it was only right and respectful that he addressed them by their title,” Elmer said. Still, behind Henrichs’s “imposing exterior,” Elmer remembered “a remarkably caring and generous person.”

This did not stop him, however, from being a fearsome questioner to his fellow scholars. “Many visitors to the department were apprehensive when they heard that Professor Henrichs would be in attendance,” Elmer recalled. “I can remember escorting speakers to the lecture hall, and they would ask me in a kind of quiet voice on the way, ‘Is Professor Henrichs going to be there?’ because they were nervous about facing him.”

Coleman summed up her view of Henrichs simply.

“He was really an inspiring teacher in the Latin etymology of that word. He breathed these subjects into his students,” she said.

—Staff writer Archie J.W. Hall can be reached at

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