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Gajdusek's Fore genealogical studies & Kuru stories released

Carleton Gajdusek and Jack Baker, 1957JOHN REES | Circulating Now

A new archival collection, The D Carleton Gajdusek Papers, 1918–2000, is now available at the National Library of Medicine for those interested in virology and the ethnography and anthropology of Micronesia.

Gajdusek (pictured here with kiap Jack Baker) was a pediatrician, virologist and chemist whose research focused on growth, development, and disease in primitive and isolated populations and winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of Kuru in Papua New Guinea.

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born on 9 September 1923 in Yonkers, New York. In 1943, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Rochester with a BS in biophysics. Gajdusek received his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1946 and performed a postdoctoral fellowship (physical chemistry) at the California Institute of Technology in 1948 under the tutelage of Linus Pauling.

Drafted by the military in 1951, he served as a research virologist at the Walter Reed Medical Service Graduate School. He also studied viral diseases, fevers and plague in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Gajdusek often said he was more proud of his anthropological studies among the Fore and Anga people of Micronesia than he was of his clinical research.

In 1955, he took a research position in Australia, which led to his interest in New Guinea, the vast island to the north of Australia. There he conducted research on a disease known as Kuru, a degenerative neurological disorder that was rampant among the people of the South Fore tribe.

The word Kuru is derived from the Fore word meaning “to be afraid” and “to shiver.” With Kuru he proved the transmissibility of a kind of organism, dubbed a “slow, unconventional virus,” that establishes a long-lasting infection and eventually can cause a disease. Gajdusek’s research concluded that the disease, also called the “Laughing Sickness,” could also be caused by the tribe’s custom of honouring the dead by eating their brains.

Changes in the brain of patients with Kuru demonstrated that the disease shared certain features with the infectious disease Scrapie and with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease. Neurologist Stanley Prusiner later identified the infectious agent as an unexpected rogue form of protein called a prion. Gajdusek and Baruch S Blumberg received the 1976 Nobel Prize “for their discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.”

Gajdusek was named Director of Laboratories for Virological and Neurological Research for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in 1958. In 1970, he was named Chief of Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at NINDS. Gajdusek was convicted on child molestation charges in 1997. After his 1998 release from jail, where he worked on two books and published five scholarly papers, he divided his time between Paris, Amsterdam, and Tromso, Norway. Gajdusek died in Tromso on 12 December 2008.

Gajdusek and Baker on new Okapa to Purosa roadThe D Carleton Gajdusek Papers contain a limited amount fieldwork and epidemiological data but no lab notebooks are in the collection, especially any related to Gajdusek’s Nobel Prize work on Kuru.

However, many of the original genealogical studies and Kuru stories collected by Gajdusek and his Australian partner Michael Alpers survive. A large majority of Gajdusek’s documentary film collection was transferred from the Peabody Essex Museum by Alpers to Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Other videocassette films produced by Gajdusek and Richard Sorenson were transferred to the Smithsonian’s Human Studies Film Archive.

The full complexity of Gajdusek’s life and research is comprehensively documented in the Photographs and Journals series of the collection including an amazing breadth and depth of black and white and colour photographs from across Gajdusek’s life experiences.

These are most accessible by the chronologically arranged photo albums subseries where one can experience the sights of Gajdusek’s research travels across the Pacific, Iran, and Russia; the Nobel awards ceremony; his field labs; interactions with all varieties of peoples; and clinical images of the diseases he studied as manifested in their hosts.

Photographs from his personal travels throughout the U.S. and Europe, along with friends and family in Yonkers, N.Y. and Maine (Deer Spring), at home in Chevy Chase and Frederick, Md. (Prospect Hill), are also well-represented.

The Correspondence series of the collection includes a mixture of personal and professional including a large Nobel Prize subseries covering his award activities. In addition to his own correspondence, the series also contains the correspondence of his mother, Ottilia Gajdusek.

Other materials are organized thematically in the Subject Files series. Kuru-related epidemiological data is found here, along with background articles and correspondence on the wide variety of research and thought experiments conducted by Gajdusek or his partners.

Of particular interest is a series of interviews conducted in 2005 with the Fore natives that helped Gajdusek in his 1950s research. These interviews shed light on the Fore’s funereal and other socio-cultural practices, Gajdusek’s sometimes controversial data collecting methods, and other Anglo-Fore ethnographic relationships and conflicts.

John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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Johnson Makaen

Kuru is a PNG medical icon described in the medical literature as a prion disease. It is caused by an infectious protein molecule,a human version of the mad cow disease.

Thanks John for bringing this up.

Martin Kaalund

Marawaka 1976. In 1976 Carleton walked in from Obura. Some years previously he had promised the Wantakia people $1,000 to complete an upgrade of the walking track Wonenara-Wantakia.

They had done this and were waiting if they would see him again. He paid on the spot.

His caravan of one met me on the Simbari ridge.He dined with us and Trevor Buising,but slept at the Lutherans.

Station life was quite exciting when I found myself writing down telegrams for him, one was from Buckminster Fuller talking of a Habitat conference in Bali. A mobile man.

Bob Cleland

There are two names rarely mentioned, when discussing the disease 'Kuru'. Both pre-date Gajdusek's claim to have discovered the disease.

There is no doubt that his field work and research was of the highest order, but he cannot claim to have discovered Kuru.

Kiap John Macarthur drew attention to Kuru in a 1953 patrol report when he noted the symptoms of sufferers and the small geographic area in which it occurred.

His report came to be known by the administration Medical Officer at Kainantu, Doctor Vin Zegas. (Macarthur may have mentioned it to Zegas verbally, as both worked in the Eastern Highlands concurrently.)

Zegas did some preliminary study of Kuru in the Fore people in 1955-6 and I presume that it was through Zegas that Gajdusek heard about Kuru.

His field work started at Okapa in 1956 or '57.

I was a Patrol Officer stationed at Kainantu for the whole of 1956.

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