On the long, twisted trail of a killer dis­ease

Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AT the beginning of War­wick An­der­son’s fas­ci­nat­ing book about the kuru dis­ease among the Fore peo­ple of Pa­pua New Guinea, pi­o­neer­ing Aus­tralian an­thro­pol­o­gists Ron­ald and Cather­ine Berndt do not come across as ad­mirable.

Al­ready ac­claimed for their work among Abo­rig­ines in Aus­tralia, in New Guinea in the 1950s they failed to build any rap­port with the high­landers of the cen­tral-east re­gion, crossly dis­miss­ing them as ‘‘ rather try­ing at times’’.

While the hus­band-and-wife team was aware of what was be­lieved to be a dis­ease caused by sor­cery, they did not pur­sue that line of in­quiry in their deal­ings with the Fore. Nei­ther did they gather much in­for­ma­tion about the Fore prac­tice of eat­ing their dead. In­deed, it would take an­other two decades for the link be­tween can­ni­bal­ism and the brain dis­ease called kuru to be­come clear.

By that time, the Berndts’ bad-tem­pered visit may have been just a dis­tant mem­ory to the Fore, which is a pity.

The Aus­tralian cou­ple’s an­thro­po­log­i­cal ap­proach was ex­actly what was needed to help sci­en­tists un­der­stand the ori­gin of the killer dis­ease. It took many more years for the link to be made, even when it be­came clear that it was mostly women and chil­dren who con­tracted kuru, and it was also mostly women and chil­dren who were fed, in a rit­ual that be­came pop­u­lar in the mid-20th cen­tury, the bodies of dead rel­a­tives.

While the Berndts were looking to doc­u­ment cargo cults and, in the case of Ron­ald, sex­ual be­hav­iours ( with rather las­civ­i­ous rel­ish, An­der­son notes), an ad­ven­tur­ous, flam­boy­ant and bril­liant Amer­i­can had, in the mean­time, stolen the march on Aus­tralian sci­en­tists fol­low­ing the kuru trail and, in so do­ing, snatched a No­bel prize from un­der their noses.

As An­der­son shows, D. Car­leton Ga­j­dusek took the hon­ours for solv­ing the kuru prob­lem in such a buc­ca­neer­ing fash­ion that it even­tu­ally brought about his ig­no­min­ious down­fall.

As you can see from just that brief back­ground to An­der­son’s The Col­lec­tors of Lost Souls: Turn­ing Kuru Sci­en­tists into Whitemen , this is some story.

An­der­son is a ‘‘ med­i­cal doc­tor and his­to­rian of sci­ence’’ who, his short bi­o­graph­i­cal note tells us, has been study­ing kuru and all peo­ple in­volved in the story of its iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for 20 years. He is a pro­fes­so­rial fel­low in the Cen­tre for Health and So­ci­ety at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney. In the ac­knowl­edg­ments added to the end of Lost Souls , he fills in a lit­tle of his own his­tory.

An­der­son started his re­search life as a stu­dent and then in­tern at the Wal­ter and El­iza Hall In­sti­tute of Med­i­cal Re­search in Mel­bourne, which plays an im­por­tant role in this his­tory of kuru. That was where he first heard about Ga­j­dusek and kuru. A decade later he was study­ing for a doc­tor­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, which holds Gad­jusek’s jour­nals.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.