POCATELLO, Idaho – Jeffrey Meldrum holds a Ph.D. in anatomical sciences and is a tenured professor of anatomy at Idaho State University. He is also one of the world's foremost authorities on Bigfoot, the mythical smelly ape-man of the Northwest woods. And Meldrum firmly believes the lumbering, shaggy brute exists.
That makes him an outcast — a solitary, Sasquatch-like figure himself — on the 12,700-student campus, where many scientists are embarrassed by what they call Meldrum's "pseudo-academic" pursuits and have called on the university to review his work with an eye toward revoking his tenure. One physics professor, D.P. Wells, wonders whether Meldrum plans to research Santa Claus, too.
Meldrum, 48, spends most of his days in his laboratory in the Life Sciences Building, analyzing more than 200 jumbo plaster casts of what he contends are Bigfoot footprints.
For the past 10 years, he has added his scholarly sounding research to a field full of sham videos and supermarket tabloid exposes. And he is convinced he has produced a body of evidence that proves there is a Bigfoot.
"It used to be you went to a bookstore and asked for a book on Bigfoot and you'd be directed to the occult section, right between the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs," Meldrum said. "Now you can find some in the natural science section."
Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in the physics department, called Meldrum's research a "joke."
"Do I cringe when I see the Discovery Channel and I see Idaho State University, Jeff Meldrum? Yes, I do," Hackworth said. "He believes he's taken up the cause of people who have been shut out by the scientific community. He's lionized there. He's worshipped. He walks on water. It's embarrassing."
John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences, said there have been "grumblings" about Meldrum's tenure, but no formal request for a review.
"He's a bona fide scientist," Kijinski said. "I think he helps this university. He provides a form of open discussion and dissenting viewpoints that may not be popular with the scientific community, but that's what academics all about."
On campus, Meldrum — himself a hulking figure, with a mop of brown hair, a bristly silver mustache, and a black T-shirt with a silhouette of a hunchbacked, lurking Bigfoot — gets funny looks and the silent treatment from other scientists, and is not invited to share coffee with the other science professors.
Over the summer, more than 30 professors signed a petition criticizing the university for hosting a Bigfoot symposium where Meldrum was the keynote speaker.
He pays for his research with a $30,000 donation from a Bigfoot believer.
Still, Meldrum has a distinguished supporter in Jane Goodall, the world-famous authority on African chimpanzees. Her blurb on the jacket of Meldrum's new book, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," lauds him for bringing "a much-needed level of scientific analysis" to the Bigfoot debate.
"As a scientist, she's very curious and she keeps an open mind," said Goodall spokeswoman Nona Gandelman. "She's fascinated by it."
Bigfoot is sort of the Loch Ness Monster of the Pacific Northwest. The legend dates back centuries. Indian folklore includes murmurs of a man-ape that roams the hidden hollows. Sasquatch is a Salish Indian word meaning woodland wildman.
Newspapers began recording sightings of Bigfoot in the backwoods during the 1920s. But skeptics have challenged the accounts, and practical jokers have staged elaborate hoaxes, including grainy film footage of someone in a monkey suit and phony footprints stamped into the ground with giant molded feet.
Meldrum said it was a decade ago in Walla Walla, Wash., that he first discovered flat 15-inch footprints in the woods. He said he thought initially that they were a hoax, but noticed locked joints and a narrow arch — traits he came to believe could only belong to Bigfoot.
"That's what set the hook," Meldrum said. "I resolved at this point, this was a question I'd get to the bottom of."
When not in the lab, he loads his Chevy Suburban with tents and forensic gear and heads for the woods of Washington state and Northern California, where he has collected what he says are footprints, hair and feces from the ape-man. He tests hair samples and uses physics to produce charts that purport to show how Bigfoot would walk.
Meldrum wonders aloud how much longer he will be on the faculty. But he said he also dreams of one day bringing back a bone or a tooth or some skin, and silencing the "stuffy academics."
"Is the theory of exploration dead?" he asked. "I'm not out to proselytize that Bigfoot exists. I place legend under scrutiny and my conclusion is, absolutely, Bigfoot exists."