On the long, twisted trail of a killer disease
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.