Daniel Carleton Gajdusek: Wikis


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Daniel Carleton Gajdusek
Born September 9, 1923(1923-09-09)
Yonkers, New York
Died December 12, 2008 (aged 85)
Tromsø, Norway
Nationality United States
Fields Medicine
Known for Prion
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1976)

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (September 9, 1923 – December 12, 2008) was an American physician and medical researcher who was the co-recipient (with Baruch S. Blumberg) of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for work on kuru, the first human prion disease demonstrated to be infectious. His later life was marred by a criminal conviction for child sexual abuse.


Early years

Gajdusek's father, Karol Gajdusek, was from Smrdáky, Slovakia and his maternal grandparents immigrated from Debrecen, Hungary. They lived in Yonkers, New York, where their son was born. Gajdusek graduated in 1943 from the University of Rochester (New York), where he studied Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. He obtained an M.D. from Harvard University in 1946. He performed postdoctoral research at Columbia, Caltech and Harvard before being drafted to complete military service at the Walter Reed Army Medical Service Graduate School as a research virologist. He held a position at the Institut Pasteur in Tehran from 1952 to 1953, where he was excited by the challenges "offered by urgent opportunistic investigations of epidemiological problems in exotic and isolated populations". In 1954 he went to work as a visiting investigator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. There, he began the work that culminated in the Nobel prize.


He received the award in recognition of his study of the disease kuru (a Fore word for "trembling"). This disease was rampant among the South Fore people of New Guinea in the 1950s and 1960s. Gajdusek connected the prevalence of the disease with the practice of funerary cannibalism, practiced by the South Fore. With elimination of this practice, Kuru disappeared among the South Fore within a generation.

Vincent Zigas, a district medical officer in the Fore Tribe region of New Guinea first introduced Gajdusek to Kuru. Gajdusek provided the first medical description of this unique neurological disorder, which was miscast in the popular press as the "laughing sickness" because some patients evinced risus sardonicus as a symptom. He lived among the Fore, studied their language and culture and performed autopsies on kuru victims. Gajdusek concluded that the disease was transmitted in the ritualistic eating of the brains of deceased relatives, which was practiced by the Fore. He then proved this hypothesis by successfully transmitting the disease to primates and demonstrating that it had an unusually long incubation period of several years [1]. This was the first demonstration of infectious nature of a non-inflammatory degenerative disease in humans. Kuru was shown to have remarkable similarity with scrapie, a disease of sheep and goats caused by an unconventional infectious agent. Later more human agents belonging to the same group were discovered. They include sporadic and familial Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, as well as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) caused by eating meat from animals infected with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad-cow disease. Though Gajdusek was not able to identify the exact biological nature of the infective agent that spreads kuru, further research of scrapie agent by Stanley Prusiner and others led to the identification of rogue proteins called prions as the cause of these diseases.

While generally accepted by the medical community, some have been questioned whether cannibalism was still being practiced at the time of Gajdusek's research. Critic Willam Arens claims that Gajdusek never actually witnessed cannibalism himself.[2] Researchers who worked with the Fore in the 1950s claimed that cannibalism was suppressed in 1948,[3] almost a decade before Gajdusek showed up in New Guinea.

Arens further alleges that the stories presented as evidence of Fore cannibalism often contradict each other and contain elements of sexism and racism.[2] According to Arens, the decline of kuru coincided with the arrival of Europeans to the area in 1961, an event that caused many substantial changes in Fore life that could have led to the improvement in health conditions.[2]

Many other researchers, including R.L. Klitzman, S. Lindenbaum, R. Glasse, and kuru field researchers at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research have documented reports that confirm the practice.

Gajdusek became head of laboratories for virological and neurological research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1958 and was inducted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1974 in the discipline of microbial biology.

Child molestation conviction

In the course of his research trips in the South Pacific, Gajdusek had brought 56 mostly male children back to live with him in the United States, and provided them with the opportunity to receive high school and college education. He was later accused by one of these, now an adult man, of molesting him as a child.

Gajdusek was charged with child molestation in April 1996, based on incriminating entries in his personal diary and statements from a victim. He pleaded guilty in 1997 and, under a plea bargain, was sentenced to 12 months in jail. After his release in 1998, he was permitted to serve his five-year unsupervised probation in Europe. He never returned to the United States and lived in Amsterdam, Paris, and Tromso. Gajdusek's treatment had been denounced from October 1996 as anti-elitist and unduly harsh by controversial Edinburgh University psychologist Chris Brand.

The documentary The Genius and the Boys by Bosse Lindquist, first shown on BBC Four on June 2, 2009, notes that "seven men testified in confidentiality about Gajdusek having had sex with them when they were boys", that four said "the sex was untroubling" while for three of them "the sex was a shaming, abusive and a violation". One of these boys, the son of a friend and now an adult, appear in the film. Furthermore, Gajdusek openly admits to molesting boys and his approval of incest.[4]. The film tries to understand not only Gajdusek's sexual mores, but also his deeper motivations for science, exploration and life.


Gajdusek died December 12, 2008 in Tromsø, Norway, at the age of 85. He was working and visiting colleagues in Tromsø at the time of his death.[5]


  1. ^ Gajdusek DC, Gibbs CJ Jr, Alpers M. Transmission and passage of experimenal "kuru" to chimpanzees. Science. 1967 Jan 13;155(759):212-4
  2. ^ a b c Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth. Oxford University Press, 1979.
  3. ^ Berndt, R.M. Excess and Restraint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  4. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ktrc0
  5. ^ McNeil, Jr, Donald G. (December 15, 2008). "D. Carleton Gajdusek, Who Won Nobel for Work on Brain Disease, is Dead at 85". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/15/science/15gajdusek.html?scp=1&sq=Gajdusek&st=cse. Retrieved 2008-12-16.  

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