Wright, William (1830-1889) (DNB00)

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WRIGHT, WILLIAM (1830–1889), orientalist, son of Captain Alexander Wright of the East India Company's service, was born at Mullye or Mallai, on the Nepal frontier, on 17 Jan. 1830. His mother was a daughter of Daniel Anthony Overbeck, the last Dutch governor of Bengal, and, being herself skilled in several oriental languages, including Persian, encouraged her son in his chosen pursuits. His school and first university education was at St. Andrews, where he graduated. He then visited the university of Halle, primarily for the study of Syriac, residing there in the house of Professor Rödiger. Here, however, he became proficient in all the chief Semitic languages, especially in Arabic, gaining at the same time a knowledge not only of other languages containing Semitic elements, such as Persian and Turkish, but even finding time for the study of so difficult a non-Semitic language as Sanskrit. Rödiger always spoke of Wright as his best pupil. Passing to Leyden, mainly for the study of Arabic manuscripts, he studied under Dozy, and there received, at the early age of twenty-three, an honorary doctor's degree. It was from Leyden that he wrote in 1852 his famous letter to Professor Fleischer, published in the ‘Journal of the German Oriental Society’ (vii. 109), stating the plan of his lifework in Arabic, largely founded on the extracts made at Leyden—‘an ambitious programme’ (as his friend Professor Bensly observed), ‘which might well have daunted the ripest scholar, but which in the end was carried out with but slight variations.’ Returning from the continent, Wright held successively the chair of Arabic at University College, London (1855–6), and at Trinity College, Dublin (1856–61). Having at the latter place to lecture in Hindustani, he commenced collecting materials for publishing a scientific dictionary of the language, a project afterwards abandoned.

Leaving for a time teaching for an opportunity of original work, which was always his main object, Wright accepted a post in the department of manuscripts at the British Museum, in order to catalogue the great collection of Syriac manuscripts.

In 1870 Wright was recalled to academic work, as Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic, at Cambridge. This post he held till his death, 22 May 1889. In the same university he was elected fellow of Queens' College, and held many foreign distinctions, including membership of the Institut de France, and of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. He married, in 1859, Miss Emily Littledale of Dublin.

In Arabic his chief publications were: ‘Travels of Ibn Jubair’ (1852); ‘Opuscula Arabica’ (1859); ‘Kāmil of Al-Mubarrad’ (1864–82); also his ‘Arabic Grammar’ (1859, 1875), professedly founded on Caspari, but, especially in the later edition, practically an original work. In Syriac, besides the great catalogue of manuscripts at the British Museum already referred to, and published 1870–2, he issued: ‘Homilies of Aphraates’ (1869); ‘Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles’ (Syriac and English), 2 vols. 1871; ‘Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite’ (Syriac and English), 1882; ‘Book of Kalilah and Dimnah’ (1883); and his brilliant article on Syriac literature for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ republished with notes since his death (1894). His unfinished edition of the Eusebian history has been completed and issued by Mr. W. Maclean (Cambridge, 1898). His minor works in Syriac—‘Notulæ Syriacæ’ and ‘Fragments of the Curetonian Gospels’ (both privately printed)—may be mentioned for their rarity. In Æthiopic he published a catalogue for the British Museum, and also contributed to several journals valuable articles on early Semitic epigraphy. His comprehensive attainments are shown in his ‘Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages,’ a posthumous publication (1890), edited by his successor, William Robertson Smith [q. v.] Wright's work with and for others formed one of his most characteristic activities. To such co-operation are due the splendid oriental series of the Palæographical Society, drawn up under his editorship, and his weighty contributions to the lexical works of Payne Smith in Syriac, of Dozy in Arabic, and of Neubauer in Hebrew. His wide scholarship was also of the greatest value to the Old Testament revision committee, of which he was a member. As a teacher he will be long remembered at Cambridge, both by colleagues and by a succession of distinguished pupils. The University Library is largely indebted to his active mediation for the possession of the finest European collection of early Indian manuscripts, that obtained by his brother, Dr. D. Wright, in Nepal, and since enlarged.

[Personal knowledge; communications from family; obituary notices by R. L. B[ensly] in Academy, in Journal of Royal Asiatic Soc. for 1889, p. 708, and by Professor de Goeje of Leiden; Catalogue of the Cambridge University Library.]

C. B.