D. Carleton Gajdusek and Kuru in New Guinea
By John Rees
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 Melanesia and Micronesia. Gajdusek 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 September 9, 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 (Papua New Guinea). 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 honoring 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 Dec. 12, 2008.
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 (HSFA).
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 color 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. There are four subseries containing data from other research projects: encephalitis patient history records from his work with a 1958 Pan American Sanitary Office study in Guatemala; a 1959 epidemic in Bolivia within a village of refugees from Uruma, Japan; a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease study; a study by lab partner M. K. Nicholson on epilepsy and rats; an unknown ALS study from 1962; and Fais Islander serological studies. Materials on these same topics are also scattered throughout individual folders within the series at large. There is also a large subseries of photographs and other images used to illustrate Gajdusek’s publications. The Writings series content is similar in scope to Subject files along with a bound set of Gajdusek’s collected reprints from 1950-1985 and a set of his Kuru-related research reprints from 1957-1966.
The D. Carleton Gajdusek papers consist of over 411 boxes of correspondence, subject files, journals, photographs, maps, awards, and electronic media. Gajdusek’s multi-disciplinary interests make the collection extremely diverse and appealing to researchers in several disciplines including anthropology, biology, ethnology, geography, linguistics, medicine, primitive arts, and psychology.