Kuru pioneer Gajdusek dies at 85
02 January 2009
controversial scientist Carleton Gajdusek, whose research into kuru led
to important insights into brain disease, has died in Norway.
When Gajdusek was taken to an Amsterdam hospital two years ago for a check up, the young doctor who examined him identified his long-term congestive heart failure, obesity and diabetes and also concluded he must be psychotic. Asked why, the doctor replied: “He claimed he was a Nobel laureate, that he is one of the world's greatest neuroscientists, has trained many of the best in the world and says he must leave tomorrow to fly to Siberia where a conference is being held in his honour.”
It was all true, and so, too, was his imprisonment on a paedophilia charge a decade ago, which overshadowed his pioneering work into a new class of diseases known initially as slow viruses, and his lifelong study of child development in primitive cultures.
Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born in New York and his experiments and early work on viruses helped lay the foundations of spongy brain infections - or prion diseases - that have latency periods lasting decades.
After working briefly with Sir Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne in 1956, Gajdusek was returning to the US by way of PNG when he decided to find out more about a strange disease called kuru in the Eastern Highlands. With none of the usual markers of infectious disease, and many siblings dying within families, often years apart, the condition was threatening to wipe out the 12,000 strong Fore tribel.
Kuru (Fore for shivering) was thought by the locals to be caused by sorcery and was incurable and untreatable with symptoms including staggering and body tremors. It led to certain death, from what Europeans referred to grimly as 'laughing sickness', within 18 months.
Gajdusek alerted the world to kuru in November 1957 and his blatant takeover irked Burnet. A flurry of uncomplimentary correspondence followed.
Gajdusek and colleagues proved that kuru and related diseases are transmissible. In 1967 his Australian colleague Michael Alpers showed that the Fore's cannibalism - eating dead relatives as a mourning ritual - had spread kuru to epidemic proportions. After the practice ceased around 1960 the incidence of kuru decreased.
In 1976, Gajdusek was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine, which he shared with Baruch Blumberg.
He returned regularly to PNG from where he adopted more than 50 children, educating them in the US where he headed the laboratory for brain studies at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for more than 25 years.
In 1997 he served a year in prison for the sexual abuse of one of his adopted children and lived the rest of his life in exile, splitting his time between Amsterdam, Paris and Norway. In 2007 he attended the ‘end of kuru’ conference - held in Pidgin and English - at the Royal Society in London. It marked the end of the disease - the last autopsy being in 2003.
Source: ‘The laureate who read heads’ by Jenny Cooke, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 2009
If you read the patrol reports from the era, it is apparent that the patrol officers suspected there was a link between cannibalism and kuru. John Coleman, who died recently was one of those.
Jack Baker is still around. He lives at 34 Clayton Street, Woorim, Queensland, 4507.
Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 15 January 2011 at 10:42 AM
Doug - I am involved in a little controversy over a US surfing film called Isolated.
One of the actors lived in West Papua and claims to have experienced evidence there of a Kuru-type disease associated with cannibalism quite recently (i.e., in the last few years).
I am somewhat skeptical of the claims, but you could contact the producer Geoff Clarke for more information at GeoffreyJamesClark.com
Posted by: Peter Kranz | 15 January 2011 at 06:13 AM
I encountered your blog with several comments on the history of kuru and Gajdusek's work. I am working on a science classroom case study
on following the work of Gajdusek and others.
I was particularly intrigued by the comment by Des Martin that Patrol Officer Jack Baker was persuaded (for his own reasons) that
cannibalism was responsible - long before this was formally demonstrated.
I am trying to secure more information and documentation on this historical fact. Can you help me reach Des Martin, or have him contact me with more details?
Does anyone in your circle know Jack Baker, who was apparently still living in 2008?
Posted by: Douglas Allchin, University of Minnesota | 15 January 2011 at 06:03 AM