A tribute to the great bombs of Moresby
Release of war roll creates more confusion

Kuru film links all humans to cannibalism

SBS 1 TV – TONIGHT 8.30 pm

Kuru DVD Kuru: the science and the sorcery follows Australian scientist, Michael Alpers, into a mysterious world of sorcery, cannibalism and tribal conflict.

This medical detective story looks at kuru (also known as laughing sickness), a degenerative neurological disorder found predominately among the Fore people of PNG.

Research into kuru revealed discoveries which turned scientific understandings upside down. The research linked strange animal diseases to fatal human diseases and it enjoined all humans in a remote past of cannibal practices.

So what prompts a young Australian medical student studying in Adelaide to move his family to a remote part of PNG while he works on finding a solution to a baffling but terrifying brain disease that's killing 200 people a year?

The student was Michael Alpers, now a hero to PNG's Fore people. This incredible medical detective story explains how Michael took on the challenge of kuru 50 years ago and how he solved the mystery - with unexpected ramifications

Filmmakers Rob Bygott and Ben Alpers spent two months with the Fore in the Eastern Highlands. Their film project was supported by the locals who shared their culture and the tragedy of kuru. The film also spends time with leading kuru researchers in London, New York and San Francisco.

Michael Alpers retraces his groundbreaking 1962 pioneering research trip. Stranger than fiction, research into kuru revealed a chain of discoveries, which turned scientific understandings upside down and resulted in two Nobel prizes.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Autumn Todd

I am on a journey myself to find any relatives or people still alive who knew my grandfather Vincent Zigas. He fathered my dad in Germany just before leaving.

My dad met Vin briefly on a trip to Washington DC, that is all I know.

I have read all of Vincent’s books and tried endlessly to find information on the internet. I see this post is nine years old but am hopeful Gloria or anyone that can get in touch with her would be willing to communicate with me at [email protected] .

Any information would be lovely.

'John Doe'

I grew up in Madang and I and my twin brother remember the same strange occurrence that may have been our parents' death.

I do not want to give my name yet but wonder if anyone reading this might know if my brother and I were adopted by a family in Madang.

When I was discharged from the US Navy in Naples, Italy, the medical officer examining me and my twin observed our behaviour and mentioned Kuru. I was shocked that he knew about it on the other side of the world.

I was diagnosed in 1990 with a "slowly evolving psychotic disorder." My brother and I remember a lot of blood and being forced to eat human flesh when infants.

Kuru is my nightmare! You can reach me at [email protected]

A Lutheran missionary wife once told my twin and I that it would have been better if we had been left in the jungle. We have both wondered about his for over 50 years.

Gloria Chalmers

Des your are right. Vin was the first medical officer to begin investigations into kuru.
As a matter of fact amongst Vin's papers is a report that John Coleman, kaip at Okapa sent the first victim to Vin at Kainantu in 1955.
The unsung heroes were the patrol officers, John MacArthur, Jack Baker and John Coleman and of course Vin himself.
For those who don't know who Gloria is - I was married to Vin from 1953 for some 10 years and believe I am the last living person from the intial study. We must stand up for the departed Vin, charasimatic, impossible but brave. Gloria Chalmers (Zigas)

Phil Fitzpatrick

On page 14 of his book about kuri, Warwick Anderson says:

"Visiting the village of Yagusa in June 1952, patrol officer W J Kelly saw small leaf-wrapped packages containing flesh of some kind, apparently used to detect the origins of sorcery.

"Later the same year, a cadet patrol officer heard that sorcerers took something intimately connected with the intended victim, such as hair, discarded food, or faeces, then wrapped it with a stone in leaves and placed the bundle on swampy ground. As the coverings decayed, the victim weakened until death occurred.

"After divination of the source of the enchantment, the offending settlement would be challenged and attacked.

"On patrols in 1953 and 1954, John McArthur (kiap) identified this form of sorcery as 'kuru', a word that described the characteristic shivering and trembling of the victim and distinguished it from other magical operations."

Anderson has a photograph of sorcery bundles for making kuru in his book.

Of course, in the 1950s, Tok Pisin was in common use in the highlands and since the disease was of recent origin the word might have been taken from Tok Pisin as George suggests.

John Fowke

I met Michael and his partner and shared a drink or two with them in Goroka a few years ago. Alpers, whose brother was also a doctor in PNG, at Talasea, is a nice bloke and a very talented and dedicated medical researcher, but he came late, relatively speaking, upon the laughing-sickness scene as already noted by various well-qualified commentators.

Far better that the film-makers linked with SBS had done him real justice and focussed instead upon Alpers' real monument, the PNG Institute of Medical Research, and his and his staff's truly great and unsung victories over tropical disease over the long period of his dedicated direction.

The IMR is one of so very very few PNG institutions to have resisted the onset of the "independence sickness", which has laid low almost all PNG's research, education, and training and extension institutions.

This fact is the reason I find my visits to PNG increasingly bittersweet episodes; great pleasure in being mobbed by a group of grey-headed old blokes - who worked for me as long ago as the 'sixties - at a little market beyond Suave on the road to Kundiawa.

Great pleasure in sitting for long beers with good PNG journalist friends in Graham Pople's Weigh Inn in PoM.

But equally great sadness at the pervading, visible and palpable social and infrastructural deterioration which is the present generation citizen-politicians' and administrators' legacy to their children.

Of course, one does continue to hope and to search for the sight of some blue sky beyond the grey.

Phil Fitzpatrick

The book to read is 'The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen' by Warwick Anderson (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore).

Vin Zigas gets a good run in the book as does Jack Baker, who was actually conducting autopsies. Gajdusek was the ego in the story and he later got into trouble over his relationships with Highland boys. 'Pacific Islands Monthly' hounded him about it.

Bill McGrath at Pacific Book House probably has a copy.

Keith Jackson

Des - You're right about Nobel Prize winner Gadjusek, who was an interesting character. Alpert was an associate of his.

You can read more about Gadjusek in an earlier piece on PNG Attitude here:


Des Martin

As an ex Kiap, I recall that a Dr Gajdusek was the first to identify Kuru. In fact I have the impression that Gajdusek received a Nobel Prize for his work on the disease.

It was a government medical officer, Dr Vin Zigas, who first brought Kuru to notice but missed out getting any recognition for his efforts. Gajdusek, an American, then came into the act followed by Alpers.

As an aside, most Patrol Officers including the one working in the area, Jack Baker, were aware that the disease was caused by a particular form of cannibalism, that is, eating the brains of relatives, without understanding the medical physiology behind the transmission of the disease.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)