Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

John Leslie Landgraf: 1914-2010

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

John Leslie Landgraf: 1914-2010

Article excerpt

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Dr. John Landgraf, an early member of what would become the first generation of academically trained anthropologists to carry out fieldwork in northern Borneo, died on December 14, 2010, in Plymouth Harbor, Florida, at the age of 96. His long life spanned a major era of Borneo studies. John was born in Albany, Oregon, on August 2, 1914. As he later wrote, his interest in Borneo began at the age of 12. His early adolescent years were spent in Southeast Asia, where his father was employed as a technician by Shell Oil Company, first in Sumatra and later and more memorably, for four years (1926 to 1930), in Miri, Sarawak. As he later recalled, oil-town life in Miri in those days offered little contact with native people. It did provide, however, his first music concerts, performed by the military band of the local Sarawak Ranger detachment.

John returned to the US in 1930. Upon completing high school in California, he entered Pomona College in 1933, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1937. At Pomona he was introduced to anthropology by Dorothy Lee and became not only Lee's first anthropology student, but the College's first anthropology major. Deciding to make a career of anthropology, Landgraf chose Columbia University for his graduate training. Here, the legendary Franz Boas passed him on his required German language reading examination, while, later on, he became one of Ralph Linton's teaching assistants. By the time he completed his university examinations in 1941, war was looming in the Pacific and ruled out fieldwork in Borneo or anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Instead, John found funding for a field study on the Navaho Indian Reservation in the Ramah area south of Gallup, New Mexico. The results provided the basis of his 1950 Ph.D. dissertation, which was later published by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University as Land Use in the Ramah Navaho Area, New Mexico: An Anthropological Approach to Areal Study (1954, XLII-No. 1). After completing his Navaho fieldwork, he served for a year as Clyde Kluckhohn's research assistant at Harvard (1941-42) and the following year taught engineering students at MIT. In 1943, Landgraf entered the US Navy, serving two and a half years of active duty in the US Naval Amphibious Corps in New Guinea and the Philippines.

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After the war, in 1946 Landgraf began a 23-year teaching and administrative career at New York University in Manhattan, starting as an instructor and ending as the Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1967, shortly before the end of his university career, he helped found the present-day NYU Anthropology Department.

It was not until 1954 that Landgraf was able to return to Borneo. Now married and with a tenure-track position at NYU, he applied for and won a Fulbright Research award to study Murut depopulation in what was then the Colony of British North Borneo, now Sabah. It was not, of course, Sarawak, but it was close by. Harold Conklin, who was then teaching anthropology at Columbia University, introduced Landgraf to a Kadazan barber from Sabah, Joe Anthony Munang, who at the time operated a barbershop on upper Amsterdam Avenue. John studied Malay with Joe Munang, from whom he also picked up a great deal of incidental information about Sabah. The relationship proved highly congenial and the two men became close friends. Years later, Munang returned to Sabah, where, with his earnings, he built a house for himself and his family near Penampang. (1)

Landgraf worked in Sabah from early 1954 through early 1955 on a Murut depopulation study commissioned by the colonial government of then British North Borneo, and supervised by the colonial Department of Medical Services. John's co-researcher was an Oxford-trained medical doctor, Dr. Ivan Polunin, then on the medical faculty of the University of Malaya in Singapore. (2) Involving collaboration between a professional anthropologist and a trained medical specialist, the project broke new ground in an area of research that would now be called medical anthropology. …

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