Medieval History Scholar : Caltech Historian John F. Benton

Times Staff Writers

Noted Caltech historian John F. Benton, recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and holder of Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships in his pursuit of medieval history, died Thursday at his home in Pasadena.

Benton’s wife, Elspeth, said her husband had fallen, and an autopsy is pending to determine the cause of death.

The 56-year-old scholar, who joined the Caltech faculty as an assistant professor of history in 1965, was recently named the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History. He saw nothing contradictory in teaching history at one of the nation’s leading scientific institutions. “I’m more interested in giving a sense of historical perspective to a future member of the Atomic Energy Commission than in teaching a future historian how to read documents,” he told an interviewer three years ago.


“What scientists need most is a sense of historical perspective. They can get a sense of paradigms of thought when they learn how intelligent people could have held quite different ideas in different cultures.”

Five-Year Fellowship

At the time of his death, Benton was in the third year of a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship that provided a $51,200 tax-free yearly stipend to use as he wished. The money had relieved some of the financial strictures of being a scholar.

Benton, who earned $4,000 a year in the late 1950s in his first teaching job at Reed College in Oregon, once recalled that in the early 1970s, when he was a Fulbright scholar in France, he had to sell his mother’s old typewriter to get his family back home.

The MacArthur stipend allowed him to return to Europe with his wife more often to do research and to take a taxi rather than fight the Paris subway.

Benton was the author of two major books on medieval England and France. But he speculated that his selection for the MacArthur prize was not because he wrote them but because he used the image-enhancing techniques developed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for space exploration to read faded and damaged medieval manuscripts.

Studied French Court

More recently, Benton was continuing his 30-year study of the late 12th-Century court of the French region of Champagne. He also had studied the correspondence between the 12th-Century lovers, Heloise and Abelard, and had reached the conclusion that Abelard wrote the letters to himself.

Benton belonged to the American Historical Assn., the Medieval Academy of America, and the Medieval Assn. of the Pacific, and he had served as president of the International Courtly Literature Society.

Besides his wife, Benton leaves four daughters, Laura, Helen, Jo and Anna, and a sister. There was no immediate announcement of funeral plans.