D. Carleton Gajdusek; Controversial Scientist
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
D. Carleton Gajdusek, 85, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist at the National Institutes of Health whose pioneering work on degenerative brain diseases resulted in major breakthroughs, and who later served time in prison on charges that he sexually molested young Pacific island boys he had unofficially adopted, died last week in Tromso, Norway.
He was found in his hotel room in Tromso on Dec. 12, about 24 hours after a manager saw him at breakfast. The cause of death was unknown, although his biographer, Robert Klitzman, told the New York Times he had long had congestive heart failure.
Dr. Gajdusek (pronounced GUY-dah-shek) was a pediatrician, virologist and chemist whose research focused on growth, development and disease in primitive and isolated populations.
After years of research in the western Pacific, he proved the transmissibility of a kind of organism, called a slow virus, that establishes a long-lasting infection and eventually can cause a disease.
He and colleagues determined that such a virus causes the degenerative neurological disease known as kuru, once common among the Fore people, a Stone Age tribe living in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
He also discovered that kuru, which turns the brain into a spongy mess, could be caused by the tribe's custom of honoring the dead by eating their brains. If the honoree had died of kuru, the infection would be passed along.
Dr. Gajdusek received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1976 for studies representing "an extraordinarily fundamental advance in human neurology and in mammalian biology and microbiology." His work led to a number of significant brain-disease findings by other scientists.
For years, Dr. Gajdusek trekked through the wilds of New Guinea, Micronesia and other remote Pacific islands to document the existence of kuru. Often he returned home -- first to Chevy Chase and then to Middletown, in Frederick County -- with Pacific-island children under his wing.
As The Washington Post noted in 1996, "he replaced their loincloths with sweat shirts and jeans, taught them how to eat with forks and knives, introduced them to the wonders of electricity and automobiles."
He unofficially adopted more than 50 children and sometimes had a dozen at a time living with him. Often, as many as 20 people would be seated around the large dinner table. Guests who occasionally dropped by included the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and inventor-philosopher Buckminster Fuller.
In 1995, the FBI began an investigation that focused "on his relationship with minor children." The charges were based on allegations by a 23-year-old college student from Micronesia who had come to live with Dr. Gajdusek as a 14-year-old.
Dr. Gajdusek initially denied wrongdoing. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse and was sentenced to a year behind bars.