Erle Leichty, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Erle Verdun Leichty, Emeritus Clark Professor of Assyriology, died September 19. He was 83 years old.

Dr. Leichty was born in Alpena, Michigan. He received a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Islamic studies and a master’s degree in Islamic art from the University of Michigan. He attended the Oriental Institute of  the University of Chicago and received a PhD in Assyriology there in 1960.

Dr. Leichty spent three years working on the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota for five years. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship while at the University of Minnesota.

In 1968, he joined Penn as an associate professor of Oriental studies, teaching Akkadian language and literature. He became a professor in 1971. In the early 1970s, leading Assyriologist Åke Sjöberg, working with Dr. Leichty, founded the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project (Almanac December 5, 1995). The publication of the first print volume, the letter B, in 1984, changed the field of Sumerology forever and was widely reported, even making the New York Times “Word of the Day”—a cuneiform version of the Sumerian form of Hallelujah—on April 18, 1984.

Dr. Leichty served as chair of the department of Oriental studies from 1980 to 1981 and was chair of the ancient history program from 1987 to 1990.

He was named Clark Research Professor of Assyriology in 1999 (Almanac March 16, 1999). He also was curator of Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Babylonian section. Dr. Leichty donated his personal library of approximately 1,200 volumes to the section to create a research facility for Penn graduate students, faculty and visiting scholars. He retired in 2002 and became emeritus.

In 2006, a number of colleagues and students banded together to produce If a Man Builds a Joyful House: Assyriological Studies in Honor of Erle Verdun Leichty. This volume is available for download at In it, his Penn colleague Barry Eichler tells about Cuneiform Studies at Penn: From Hilprecht to Leichty.

Dr. Leichty wrote a number of books, articles and book chapters including volumes III and VI-VIII of the Catalogue of Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum and The Omen Series Summa Izbu.

He was a trustee of the Institute of Semitic Studies and a member of the American Oriental Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Oriental Club of Philadelphia.

He was married to the late Annette Sherman Leichty, who passed away five days after his death.

He is survived by his children, Cathy Helgason, Martin McDermut (Maureen) and Nancy Brucato (Bill); grandchildren, Marteinn Sigurdsson, Courtney Yarbrough (DJ), Gregory Barber, Christopher and Margaret McDermut; and great-grandchildren, Kort, Ian and Reed Yarborough.

A memorial service for Dr. Leichty is planned for February 10, 2017, at the Penn Museum.