Robert McCormick Adams
Alumni Medal

In 1950, Robert McCormick Adams, PhB’47, AM’52, PhD’56, was working the swing shift at a South Chicago steel mill while studying part time at the University. At 24 he had already helped build some of the original ski trails in Aspen and studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before dropping out to serve in World War II. At Chicago, Mr. Adams wrote regularly for the Maroon—edited by his friend David Broder, AB’47, AM’51—and thought he would probably become a journalist.

Then one of his professors, the renowned archaeologist Robert Braidwood, PhD’43, invited him to go on a dig in the Kurdish foothills of Iraq. A member of Braidwood’s team had dropped out at the last minute; Mr. Adams was chosen as a replacement because he knew how to fix cars. During the dig he fell in love with anthropology.

Mr. Adams spent the next three decades at the University of Chicago, serving on the faculty from 1955 to 1984; he was named the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology in 1975. His administrative roles included director of the Oriental Institute (1962–68, 1981–83), dean of the Division of Social Sciences (1970–74, 1979–80), and University provost (1982–84).

His research has taken him to Mexico, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, but he is best known for his work in Iraq. Mr. Adams pioneered the use of aerial and satellite photographs to trace ancient settlement patterns between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in order to understand long-term cycles in the growth and decline of civilizations. Recognized as one of the most influential figures in the archaeology of ancient complex societies, Mr. Adams has fundamentally transformed theories about the origins of urbanism.

After the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, however, the area became increasingly difficult and dangerous for westerners. By the early 1980s, he found fieldwork in his region of specialty to be all but impossible.

In 1984 Mr. Adams became the ninth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. During his decade-long tenure, he brought a new focus on cultural diversity, overseeing the creation of the new National Museum of the American Indian and the National African American Museum.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Mr. Adams’s seminal publications on early urban societies have continued to hold preeminent positions in his field. A prolific scholar, Mr. Adams takes an interdisciplinary approach in his current research, asking questions on topics both ancient and modern—from shepherds at Umma in the Third Dynasty of Ur to the limits of state power on the Mesopotamian plain to providing context of Iraqi lootings and lessons on terrorism.

In 2006 the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA published Settlement and Society: Essays Dedicated to Robert McCormick Adams, written by his students and disciples. According to its introduction, the book “is offered as a tribute to the breadth and depth of his research and as an appreciation of the influence he has had on all of us. We are better scholars thanks to his ability to cut to the heart of matters in a world of social complexity.”

Alumni Medals

Created in 1941, Alumni Medals are awarded to recognize achievement of an exceptional nature in any field, vocational or voluntary, covering an entire career. It is the highest honor the Alumni Association can bestow. Because the value of the medal is defined by its recipients, it has been given sparingly. Medals are awarded to no more than one person each year and need not be awarded on an annual basis.

related reading

"Former Oriental Institute Director and Anthropology Professor Honored with Alumni Medal"

Chicago Chronicle
June 11, 2009