Teaching Science through History

Carleton Gajdusek & Kuru

by Pierre Paul Gros (with contributions from Douglas Allchin)

Carleton Gajdusek 1957In the 1950s, a mysterious neurodegenerative disease called kuru appeared among the primitive Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Natives attributed it to sorcery. American D. Carleton Gajdusek conducted epidemiological studies among the remote tribe and later transmission studies in lab animals. He found that kuru was propagated by a "slow virus," a new disease transmission type, a discovery for which he received a Nobel Prize. Decades later, Gajdusek's "slow virus" was identified as a prion. Gajdusek's interactions with the Fore people and, later in his life, sexual relations with Fore boys raise many questions at the intersection of science, culture and ethics.

NOS features include:

  • posing problems
  • research ethics
  • science journalism
  • interdisciplinary relationships & collective nature of discovery
  • public image of scientists [supplemental activity]

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    kuru 1957 Gajdusek & Vigas 1957