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