Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Doctor Will See You Now: Dr. Josiah Stinkney Carberry


Josiah Stinkney Carberry is a fictional professor, created as a joke. He is said to have taught at Brown University, and to be known for his work in "psychoceramics," the supposed study of "cracked pots."

The joke originated when John W. Spaeth posted a false notice for a Carberry lecture on a bulletin board at Brown in 1929. The lecture, on "Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology" was, of course, never given, and when asked, John Spaeth obligingly provided false details about the professor's (fictional) family and (non-existent) academic interests. The joke has been embraced since that time, at least at Brown, and Carberry has traditionally been scheduled to lecture every Friday the 13th and February 29th (he of course "misses" all of them), and a general mythology has grown around him and his family. Jars, many of them cracked pots, are placed in many of the administrative buildings as well as the libraries and students can donate change to Professor Carberry on these days. Students have taken great delight in inserting references to him in otherwise serious journals, as any such reference which fails to point out his non-existence seriously undercuts the reputation of those works. The prominent legal philosopher Joel Feinberg, whose teaching career began with a two-year stint at Brown, carried on a long and apparently furious feud with Carberry in the acknowledgement sections of his many books. Carberry was also known at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut from about 1930, when Spaeth moved from Brown University to join the Wesleyan faculty. Carberry's career there closely paralleled the Brown experience, which continued in Providence, raising the suspicion that Carberry had mastered the art of bilocation.

Each Friday the 13th is "Josiah Carberry Day" at Brown. Often lectures are scheduled where Carberry fails to show up, and cracked pots are put outside the libraries for donations to the Josiah S. Carberry Fund, which Carberry set up for the purchase of books "of which I might or might not approve". Books in the Brown library collections purchased by this fund have a special bookplate identifying them with the Latin phrase "Dulce et Decorum Est Desipere in Loco" (It is pleasant and proper to be foolish once in a while.)"

Those "in" on the joke, however, also enjoy the use of his name: a snack bar at Brown (Josiah's or Jo's for short) and the library's card catalog (Josiah) are named for him. Professor Carberry also writes letters to the Brown Daily Herald, Brown's student newspaper, that are published annually on April Fool's Day. A Brown-affiliated student housing cooperative (Carberry House) also shared his name from 1970 until its closure in 1998. Professor Carberry also appeared in an American Express commercial in the 1980s. Additionally, the documentation for logging into password-protected areas of the Brown University website often uses "jcarberr" as the example username.

On October 3, 1991, at the First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, Carberry was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for Interdisciplinary Research, making him one of only three fictional people to have won the award. He was commended as "bold explorer and eclectic seeker of knowledge, for his pioneering work in the field of psychoceramics, the study of cracked pots."

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