Daniel Carelton Gajdusek

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Daniel Carelton Gajdusek


American Virologist and Pediatrician

In 1976 Daniel Carleton Gajdusek shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Baruch S. Blumberg (1925- ) for their discoveries concerning "new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases." Gajdusek had suggested the existence of "slow viruses," novel viruses that seemed to remain dormant for long periods of time before attacking the body. The concept of slow viruses emerged from Gajdusek's studies of kuru, a degenerative brain disease found among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. The slow viruses were eventually implicated as the causative agents of other diseases, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and mad-cow disease.

Gajdusek was born in Yonkers, New York. His father was born in Slovakia and his mother was a first-generation Hungarian American. His aunt, Irene Dobrozcky, an entomologist, who arranged for him to obtain a summer job at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, encouraged his interest in science. Gajdusek attended the University of Rochester and was awarded his bachelor's degree summa cum laude in 1943. Three year later he was awarded the M.D. from the Harvard Medical School, where he had specialized in pediatrics. To complete his training, Gajdusek spent the years from 1946 to 1951 doing an internship at Columbia Presbyterian in New York, and residencies at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati and Children's Medical Center in Boston. He also participated in a postwar medical mission to Germany, studied physical chemistry at Caltech with Linus Pauling (1901-1994), and carried out research in the virology laboratory of John Enders (1897-1985) at Harvard.

In 1952 Gajdusek was drafted and assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research. Joseph Smadel, who supervised his virology research at the Institute, suggested that Gajdusek might be more suited to field epidemiology work. After he left the service in 1954, Gajdusek worked with Marcel Baltazard at the Pasteur Institute in Teheran studying the epidemic diseases of the Middle East. Two years later Gajdusek moved to Melbourne, Australia to work with Sir MacFarlane Burnet (1899-1985). Gajdusek met Vincent Zigas, district medical officer of the Public Health Department in Port Moresby, Australia, during a field excursion to New Guinea. Zigas introduced him to a strange neurological disorder, known as kuru, which was found only among the Fore people, who lived in isolation in the eastern highlands of New Guinea. Most of the victims of the disease were women and children. Gajdusek spent almost a year living with and studying the Fore, and collecting tissue samples from victims of kuru.

When Gajdusek returned to the United States in 1958, he was able to carry out laboratory studies of kuru at the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke, where he eventually established the Laboratories of Slow, Latent, and Temperate Virus Infections and of Central Nervous System Studies. The brain tissue obtained from victims of kuru revealed many lesions and atrophy, but not the expected signs of infection. William Hadlow of the NIH Rocky Mountain laboratory pointed out the similarity between kuru and a viral disease of sheep known as scrapie. To test the possibility that kuru was a viral disease, Gajdusek and his associate, Clarence J. Gibbs, inoculated chimpanzees with brain tissue from kuru victims. Two years later the experimental animals showed symptoms of the disease. Brain issue from these animals produced the same disease in previously healthy chimpanzees. Studies of the Fore people suggested that the disease was transmitted by ritual cannibalism, in which women and children ate the brains of those who had died of kuru. After the ritual was abandoned, the disease eventually disappeared. Gajdusek and Gibbs were able to transmit other brain diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in a similar manner.

Gajdusek adopted many children from New Guinea and brought them to the United States. He used much of his Nobel Prize money for the education of his adopted children. He retired in 1997 from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he had been chief of the Laboratory for Central Nervous System Studies.