The Strange Case of the Mad Professor: A True Tale of Endangered Species, Illegal Drugs, and Attempted Murder

Overview

It was one of the biggest scandals in New York University history. Professor John Buettner-Janusch, chair of the Anthropology Department, was convicted of manufacturing LSD and Quaaludes in his campus laboratory. He claimed the drugs were for an animal behavior experiment, but a jury found otherwise. B-J, as he was known, served three years in prison before being paroled, emerging to find his life and career in shambles. Four years later, he sought revenge by trying to kill the sentencing judge with poisoned ...

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Strange Case of the Mad Professor: A True Tale of Endangered Species, Illegal Drugs, and Attempted Murder

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Overview

It was one of the biggest scandals in New York University history. Professor John Buettner-Janusch, chair of the Anthropology Department, was convicted of manufacturing LSD and Quaaludes in his campus laboratory. He claimed the drugs were for an animal behavior experiment, but a jury found otherwise. B-J, as he was known, served three years in prison before being paroled, emerging to find his life and career in shambles. Four years later, he sought revenge by trying to kill the sentencing judge with poisoned Valentine’s Day chocolates. After pleading guilty to attempted murder, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he died on a hunger strike. But before he was infamous, B-J was a scientific luminary who taught at Yale and Duke as well as NYU. One of the world’s foremost authorities on lemurs, our distant primate relatives on the remote island of Madagascar, he brought international attention to these endearing and endangered creatures. He had cofounded the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina and inspired a whole generation of scientists to study them and environmentalists to save them and their habitat. His trials captured national headlines, but the mad scientist’s full story has never been told—until now.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
John Buettner-Janusch’s academic achievements were stellar (he was the chair of New York University’s anthropology department in the 1970s, and an expert on lemurs), but as journalist Kobel (Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and Triumph of Movie Culture) uncovers in this vivid tale, during his down time, the “mad professor” explored darker territory. On the surface, Buettner-Janusch—or B-J, as he was known to friends and colleagues—was a brilliant scientist and teacher, yet Kobel unearths a complex, contradictory man who lied to reach the heights of the Ivory Tower before being ousted by feds who discovered his illegal on-campus drug manufacturing operation. Although he claimed the LSD and quaaludes were for animal research, the court found him guilty of manufacturing the drugs and sentenced him to five years in prison, a punishment that B-J, when released on parole, sought to avenge by sending poisoned Valentine’s Day chocolates to the judge. Attempted murder earned him another 20 years. Ending with the disgraced scientist’s 1992 demise—behind bars—and an informed epilogue on lemurs, Kobel expertly wraps up this bizarre true crime tale. B&w photos. Agent: Martha Kaplan, Martha Kaplan Agency. (July)
From the Publisher

"An unsettling but engaging portrait of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure ... with a number of odd twists and turns."
Daily Hampshire Gazette

"BJ had a profound, lasting influence. ... There are rich details [here] about his academic life at Yale, Duke, and NYU. ... The story of how he moved through life is well-traced by Kobel. ... The book is a good read. ... The picture of BJ in his NYU office on page 75 is worth the price of the book. ... An interesting book about one of the real characters in biological anthropology."
PaleoAnthropology

"A well-researched, clearly written biography of a strange character."
Kirkus Reviews

"A vivid tale ... Kobel unearths a complex, contradictory man who lied to reach the heights of the Ivory Tower before being ousted by feds who discovered his illegal on-campus drug manufacturing operation. ... Kobel expertly wraps up this bizarre true crime tale."
Publishers Weekly

Critical acclaim for Silent Movies:

“Spectacular.”                                                                                                       

New York Times
 

“This isn't a coffee table book, though any coffee table would be lucky to be graced by it. The excellent text manages the trick of being exhaustive without being exhausting, while the photos—and stills, and posters, and lobby cards—are enchanting.”

Wall Street Journal

“The definitive visual history of silent film.”

New York Daily News

“A handsomely designed and illustrated pictorial history of the voiceless cinema.”

Los Angeles Times

“If you ever wondered why film buffs get weak in the knees about the movies made before talkies, this book can help you understand. . . . It is beautifully designed with a dazzling array of movie stills, posters and promo material drawn from the Library of Congress' memorabilia collection.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“A ravishing, oversize, million-pound study of the silent movie era.”

Washington Post Express

“Lovingly detailed . . . An essential addition to any film or design lover's library.”  —Encore magazine

From the Publisher
· Critical acclaim for Silent Movies:

“Spectacular.”                                                                                                       

New York Times
 

“This isn't a coffee table book, though any coffee table would be lucky to be graced by it. The excellent text manages the trick of being exhaustive without being exhausting, while the photos—and stills, and posters, and lobby cards—are enchanting.”

Wall Street Journal

“The definitive visual history of silent film.”

New York Daily News

“A handsomely designed and illustrated pictorial history of the voiceless cinema.”

Los Angeles Times

“If you ever wondered why film buffs get weak in the knees about the movies made before talkies, this book can help you understand. . . . It is beautifully designed with a dazzling array of movie stills, posters and promo material drawn from the Library of Congress' memorabilia collection.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“A ravishing, oversize, million-pound study of the silent movie era.”

Washington Post Express

“Lovingly detailed . . . An essential addition to any film or design lover's library.”  —Encore magazine

Kirkus Reviews
Longtime magazine journalist Kobel (Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, 2007) documents the controversial life and death of Professor John Buettner-Janusch (1924-1992), the world's expert on lemurs and a man so out of control that he served two prison terms for two separate crimes. Buettner-Janusch gained his reputation as an animal anthropologist at Duke University and New York University. There is no question his research on the lemur species added greatly to the knowledge of animal and human behavior. However, the flamboyant professor struck almost everybody who knew him as strange due to his moodiness, authoritarian manner, persecution complex, sartorial choices and sexual preferences. While married to a fellow researcher, he maintained a modicum of equilibrium, but after her cancer-related death in 1977, the professor's strangeness increased noticeably. Law enforcement authorities began investigating the use of his NYU research laboratory for the manufacture of LSD and other illegal narcotics unrelated to the lemur research. Charged with felonies by federal prosecutors, Buettner-Janusch ended up in prison after a jury trial. Released in 1983 but still on parole, the former famous researcher could not find meaningful employment. He began to plot revenge against men and women he felt had betrayed him, focusing especially on the federal judge, Charles Brieant, who presided at the drug manufacturing trial. In 1987, the unbalanced former professor sent poisoned chocolates to the judge's home on Valentine's Day. The judge never consumed the candy, but his wife did and became seriously ill. Buettner-Janusch pled guilty and received a new prison sentence. He died in prison in 1992. He rarely, if ever, expressed remorse and died mostly forgotten. A well-researched, clearly written biography of a strange character.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762773770
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/2/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 508,938
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Kobel has worked as an editor at Entertainment Weekly, Saveur, ARTnews, and Premiere and has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. The author of the critically acclaimed Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, he now writes about environmental and conservation issues and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Defense attorney Jules Ritholz argued that the illicit drugs found in the lab were part of a legitimate research project, to be used in behavior modification experiments on lemurs. Somewhat contradictorily, he also tried to build a case that the prosecution’s star witness, B-J’s colleague Clifford Jolly, had been jealous of B-J’s success and had conspired with lab assistant Richard Macris to plant the drugs to bring down B-J and perhaps even usurp his job as department chair.

Ritholz also argued that there was no discernible, reasonable motive. B-J was one of the best-paid professors at NYU and had inherited a large sum of money when his wife, Vina, died. In his opening statement, Ritholz said: “What is there in this that would leave probably the most prominent physical anthropologist in the world to risk reputation, career, prison, the loss of everything he has worked for by performing a criminal act? Why in the world?”

Why in the world, indeed.

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