Daniel Gajdusek

In the mid-1960s the Fore were dropping like flies as the kuru epidemic threatened to do to the Fore what an asteroid in Mexico did for the dinosaurs. Fortunately for the Fore, and indeed all unfortunate victims of epidemics, whilst many people cancel holidays and buy face masks from China on the internet, there are some who head straight to Heathrow with test tubes and petri dishes in their carry-on bags wet-lipped at the prospect of discovering why so many people were suddenly dying. In the case of kuru, the Fore people were ultimately saved from joining the dinosaurs by the work of Daniel Gajdusek, who connected the spread of the disease to cannibalism and who, alongside Baruch S. Blumberg, was honoured with the mantelpiece-friendly Nobel Prize for medicine in 1972. If rough estimates had about one thousand Fore ending up ten-foot under for nibbling on their relatives, and there being – according to the sketchy census courtesy of the ever-ready kiaps – about twenty thousand Fore, then Daniel Gajdusek could roughly claim to have saved nineteen thousand people. Give or take. That is unquestionably worthy of a Nobel Prize for medicine and a place up in heaven. Or so you would have thought. Yet, as ever, with those blessed with genius Gajdusek had a dark side; one which ultimately hobbled his career, sent him into exile, and which likely now sees him in a fiery pit being flogged by one of Satan’s lackeys. In 1996 Gajdusek was charged and convicted of molesting children.

Quite how Gajdusek found himself in Papua New Guinea is not recorded, but he did and it was there that he was introduced to the problem of kuru by the district medical officer. Gajdusek was of Slovakian descent but was born in New York. He went to quite a few Universities including Harvard and Columbia, and so had a strong start in getting to know his onions. After being discharged from the army he ended up working in Melbourne, which perhaps explains how he ended up staring at a dead Fore in Papua New Guinea. Australia being involved in the early administration of the region. Not in any way put off by the epidemic, Gajdusek lived amongst the Fore, learning their language and customs, and when one died, he did autopsies. He ended up doing a lot of autopsies and eventually decided that the transmission of the disease came from the ritualistic nibbling of dead relatives. He proved his early hypothesis by drilling holes into chimp’s heads and placing puréed brain matter into the bit of the brain that regulates muscular activity. Gajdusek, you can assume, was not a vegetarian.

Anyway, the animals went on to develop the symptoms of kuru and his work proved to be the first demonstration of the infectious spread of a non-inflammatory degenerative disease. Further research discovered that the cause of the disease, and other similar diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD, were as a result of endogenous proteins called prions. Now despite the Nobel Prize and the enviable respect of the whole medical community there were some who thought that the theory had holes. This was because by the time Gajdusek was living amongst the Fore cannibalism, according to some reports, had already been given the no-no by the authorities. Anthropologists instead suggest that the decline in kuru came as a result of Europeans arriving on the island who built schools and medical facilities. It could have equally just been down to having running water and a bit of soap to go round. Still, either way, there was no more kuru, and Gajdusek went on to a become a leading figure in the research of neurological disease. Sadly, it was not all that he would be remembered for.

On his many trips to the region, Gajdusek would often return home with a small boy, which must have caused a fair twitch of the neighbour’s curtain when the taxi dropped him off from the airport. In all, Gajdusek brought back more than fifty boys to live with him in the US where he provided them with a home and the opportunity to get a proper education. Yet that wasn’t all the boys got and in 1996 Gajdusek was charged with molestation based on the testimony of his victims and, remarkably, incriminating entries into his own diary. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twelve months in prison. On his release he left the US and lived in Amsterdam and Paris before settling in Tromsø a small town in Norway which the local tourist office will tell you is the most northern city in the world. A fact that is neither relevant nor that interesting. A documentary The Genius and the boys later tried to explain Gajdusek’s warped motives in life but didn’t appear to reach many answers and his life was also the inspiration to a novel by the American writer Hanya Yanagihara, the plot of which doesn’t really make for nice bedtime reading.

Gajdusek died in Tromsø in 2008 leaving the world to mull his uncomfortable legacy. A brilliant physician and medical researcher, but probably not godfather material.

 

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