North American Scholar

BURNS, Alfred (né Birnbaum)

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1912-10-06
  • Born City: Vienna
  • Born State/Country: Austria
  • Parents: Leonhard & Josefine Strohmayer Birnbaum
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1994-09-29
  • Death City: Seattle
  • Death State/Country: WA
  • Married: Stella K., 1937.
  • Education:

    B.A. U. Washington, 1952; M.A., 1958; Ph.D., 1964. 

  • Professional Experience:

    Asst. prof. class. U. Hawaii, Manoa, 1965-66; assoc. prof. 1966-73; prof. 1973-83.  

  • Dissertation:

    “The Life and Political Career of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus” (U. of Washington, 1964).

  • Publications:

     "The Tunnel of Eupalinus and the Tunnel Problem of Hero of Alexandria," Isis 62 (1970) 172-185; "Ancient Greek Water Supply and City Planning: A Study of Syracuse and Akragas," Technology and Culture 15 (1974) 389-412; The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization (Peter Lang, Studia Classica, New York) 1989.

  • Notes:

    The remarkable Alfred Burns--an Austrian by birth—led a unique and amazing life, a life continuously sustained by the Greek and Roman authors and the standards of excellence that they communicated.Although drawn to Classics from the days he first studied Greek and Latin in the Gymnasium, he put off becoming a classicist because of the tumultuous events that led to the outbreak of World War II. He and his bride Stella (they would share almost fifty years of married life) barely escaped the Nazi inva­sion of Austria by skiing to Switzerland; while in France they obtained visas to emigrate to America. Burns held a variety of jobs during the 1930s and 1940s: a croupier in the casinos of Austria, a waiter and bartender in the restaurants of New York, and a ski instructor in the hills of Pennsylvania. After serving in the United States Army during World War II, he traveled to Seattle, where, while working for the Boeing Company, he earned his degrees at the University of Washing­ton. Burns studied Roman philosophy with Professor William Grummel, with whom he wrote his dissertation, and Greek philosophy with Professor John McDiarmid, whose classes kindled his interest in Greek scientific/philosophic thought.  His dissertation topic grew out of his interest in the seizure of power by dictators. In 1965-66, with his doctorate in hand, he went to the University of Hawaii, where he taught in the Classics program for seventeen years, a program that he chaired for the first thirteen years of his tenure. He taught Greek, Latin, and Classics-in-Translation courses to all levels of students, and recruited the Classics professors who currently teach in the Department of European Languages and Literature.Starting his teaching career at the age of 53, he climbed the academic cursus honorum to the rank of Professor by publishing a series of scholarly articles on ancient science and ancient philosophy. These articles involved his exploring whether mathematics served only as a theoretical part of abstract philosophy and to what degree it functioned to help people solve problems of a practical nature. After visiting Greece on a grant from the National Science Foundation, Burns published an article on the Tunnel of Eupalinus and following research in Italy he wrote on the ancient Greek water supply. Following his retirement at the age of 70, he conducted research on the subject of literacy—specifically how it generated cultural and cognitive advances in Western civilization from antiquity to the present. Focusing on various milestone eras, he presented his findings in The Power of the Written Word. He then proceeded to write his autobiography—From Austria to Hawaii: Odyssey of a Classicist—a volume co-edited by the authors of this obituary. Burns' own words reveal an individual who lived life to the hilt and testify to the extraordinary teacher, colleague, and human being whom many of us had the privilege and good fortune of know­ing.

  • Sources:

    DAS 6th ed. 66; APA Newsletter (February 1995) 26; Burns, Austria to Hawaii: Odyssey of a Classicist, ed. Robert J. Ball & J.D. Ellsworth,  Hawaii Classical Studies (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).

  • Author: Robert J. Ball & J.D. Ellsworth