The Mad Professor: City author explores a bizarre story of attempted poisonings

Last modified: Thursday, September 05, 2013

He was a highly successful academic, the chairman of the anthropology department at New York University, a skilled educator and scientist who became one of the world’s leading experts on lemurs. He was cultivated, urbane and politically progressive, admired by his friends and many of his students for his wit, intellect and generosity.

But John Buettner-Janusch, known to his friends as B-J, had a dark side — a very dark side — and his world came crashing down when he was jailed in the early 1980s for manufacturing LSD and quaaludes in his laboratory, ostensibly for research on lemurs. Paroled a few years later, he would end up back in prison for attempted murder after he mailed poisoned chocolates to the sentencing judge from his drug trial.

Now a Northampton writer, for the first time, has chronicled the complete story of Buettner-Janusch, whose crimes were headline news in New York City and elsewhere at the time. “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor: A True Tale of Endangered Species, Illegal Drugs and Attempted Murder,” by Peter Kobel, offers an unsettling but engaging portrait of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure who was something of a human chameleon, wearing a different mask depending on who he was with.

“When I first read about him, I thought, ‘Oh my God — this is an amazing story,’ ” Kobel said during a recent interview in his home. “And the more I learned, the more I wanted to write a book. But first I had to try to figure out how someone that brilliant could self-destruct so totally.”

To do that, Kobel, a former arts editor and writer for magazines such as Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, followed a vast paper trail on Buettner-Janusch, who died in prison in 1992 at age 67 from complications related to the HIV/AIDS virus. From the professor’s voluminous academic writing, to his personal correspondence, to the transcripts of his two criminal trials and media accounts of them — as well as interviews with dozens of people who knew him — Kobel says he was able to put together a pretty complete portrait of the wayward academic.

In many ways, though, Buettner-Janusch remains an enigma, Kobel adds. On one hand, he founded a prestigious lemur research center at Duke University in North Carolina that today hosts the largest population of lemurs outside Madagascar. He also helped educate or inspire a number of students who went on to become leading experts on the small primates.

But, Kobel says, Buettner-Janusch could be vicious to colleagues and students, and “he stole people’s work, he lied to further his career, and he was incredibly reckless when it came to taking risks like manufacturing drugs right in his lab. ... He also didn’t care about involving other people in that and possibly destroying their careers.”

A big challenge in writing the book — and in pitching it to publishers — was dealing with what Kobel calls the “cognitive dissonance” of the narrative, given its disparate elements: cute and cuddly animals, illegal drugs, and “B-J’s murderous rage,” the kind that drove him to try to kill not just the sentencing judge from his drug trial but a number of other people, to whom he also sent poisoned chocolates.

“How do you make that a compelling read?” said Kobel, whose book was published by Lyons Press in Connecticut. “I understand why a publisher would ask that. ... It’s a very strange story, very disturbing in some ways. But at the same time, I found it absolutely fascinating.”

Early struggles

As “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” outlines, Buettner-Janusch was born in Chicago in 1924 to an Austrian father and a mother of German descent. Though he grew up primarily in a small town in Wisconsin, Buetter-Janusch was always drawn to Chicago and urban locales in general, and he would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in science at the University of Chicago.

Despite his later academic success, he struggled at times early in his career. Though he professed to be smarter than many people around him, Kobel writes, Buettner-Janusch was a mediocre student as an undergraduate. As a teenager, he also expressed open admiration for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis — not exactly a popular opinion in middle America in the days of World War II.

Oddly, Buettner-Janusch later proclaimed himself a pacifist and was jailed for six months in 1944 after not showing up for his draft induction. Years later, while teaching in the conservative South, he became an advocate of the civil rights movement and an opponent of the Vietnam War.

“He would change his politics like changing into a different suit,” said Kobel. “He transformed himself into a liberal democrat when he found out the whole Nazi thing wasn’t working for him.”

Kobel got some of this early information from Buetter-Janusch’s niece, Teresa Trausch, and from a more unusual source: FBI archives. In the early 1950s, Buettner-Janusch applied for a position as a forensic anthropologist with the U.S. Army, in which he would help identify dead servicemen from the Korean War, though he ultimately didn’t take the job.

The FBI investigated him as part of the application, turning up his teenage Nazi leanings and this comment from a supervisor at a psychiatric hospital Buettner-Janusch had worked in as an orderly in the mid 1940s: “Mr. Janusch is undoubtedly a very sick boy. ... His own personal problems were such as to make it very difficult for him.... We have advised this boy to seek psychiatric advice.”

“There was something really wrong with him, and you can see signs of that from the get-go,” Kobel said. “He always wanted people to pay attention to him, yet he was sensitive to any kind of criticism. He saw personal vendettas everywhere, and he could be completely indifferent to people’s feelings ... he fits the narcissistic personality profile perfectly.”

Academic infighting

Nevertheless, Buettner-Janusch found his academic stride as a physical anthropologist, the branch of the field that studies development of the human species and its origins. He earned a doctorate at the University of Michigan and landed a teaching position at Yale University, where he first developed an interest in lemurs, studying their genetic makeup and blood chemistry.

He and his wife, biochemist Vina Mallowitz, made a number of trips to Madagascar in the early 1960s to study lemurs, and Buettner-Janusch built up a significant colony of the animals at Yale. When he moved to Duke University in 1965, he took the primates with him and established the school’s lemur center, the first of its kind in the country.

Kobel says he wanted to be as objective as possible about Buettner-Janusch, and “The Mad Professor” shows he was a popular and talented teacher; he also wrote what is still considered a seminal textbook on physical anthropology, “Origins of Man.” Yet the professor “made enemies as easily and as often as friends” with his arrogance and volatile temper, Kobel writes, and the book includes almost comical accounts of the nasty academic infighting Buettner-Janusch was involved in.

His undoing came at NYU, where he was hired in 1973 to chair the anthropology department. He was a disaster as a manager, Kobel writes, and after his wife died in 1977, he revealed himself as a closeted bisexual or gay man, having trysts with a number of men. Then, when the National Science Foundation cut off his funding for lemur research, he began making drugs in his lab, telling his student assistants the materials were for additional research on lemurs.

It’s a complex part of the story, with a number of odd twists and turns, and one that can’t answer the biggest question: Why did Buettner-Janusch do it? For money? Because he thought he could get away with it? Because he was angry his NSF funding had been cut? Long after his conviction, the professor continued to insist he was innocent, and he promised to tell friends the “real story” of what happened — but he never did.

And after the man the New York Post called “The Nutty Professor” was jailed in 1987 for trying to poison people with tainted chocolates, even many of those friends “gave up on B-J,” said Kobel — though to this day, he added, some still believe he was innocent of the drug charges and only sent the poisoned chocolates because he’d become unhinged by his first prison term and the collapse of his career.

Though he’s ready to move on to writing about environmental issues for his next project, Kobel says, “The Mad Professor,” a book he spent parts of five years on, gave him a wonderfully varied topic, despite its ultimately grim outcome.

“I could write about endangered species, the fishbowl of academia, I could explore the life of a career academic,” he said. “And the true-crime aspect was a story unto itself. ... It was a chance to talk about a lot of things.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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