Virology, Paediatrics and Community Child Health
Designatory Letters: 
BS Rochester 1943, MD Harvard 1946, FRCP Edin 1991, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1976

The death of this Nobel Prize winner brings to an end a remarkable and highly productive, if eccentric and irregular, life.

A son of East Europeans living in New York, he qualified in medicine at Harvard, then did research with Linus Pauling and Max Delbruch, all three of them later to be Nobel laureates. As a US army doctor he was sent to Korea where he showed that the haemorrhagic fever killing US soldiers there was spread by migrating birds. He was then sent to a camp in Bolivia for native American Okinawans transported there by the US navy after the second world war. There were so many deaths amongst them that it was rumoured that it was an extermination camp. He showed that the deaths were from natural causes or fighting. The military were impressed and the head of the US Center for Disease Control reportedly told him “You’re a screwball but you’re my kind of screwball!”

He turned down an invitation to work further with CDC and instead went to work with the immunologist and future Nobel laureate, Macfarlane Burnet in Melbourne. In 1957 he went to Port Moseby, New Guinea and learnt from Dr R F R Scragg, head of the Papua New Guinea Health department, of a mysterious disease there called kuru in the Fore tribe of the eastern highlands. Gajdusek took dozens of blood samples for analysis and by April 1957 had recorded 28 cases and `13 deaths mostly children. Two months later he reported 200 deaths, 14 out of 15 of which were women. He sent brains to the US National Institute of Health and to Australia. He studied their life style, what they ate and drank or touched, All treatments that he tried failed. American scientists noted that the brains were similar to those of patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In 1958 a US scientist, William Hadlow, saw an exhibition on kuru and got in touch with Gajdusek saying that the brains looked like those of sheep infected with scrapie. Gajdusek then inoculated primates with extracts of Fore brains and began a long wait for any results. In the meantime he brought back 55 Polynesian and Micronesian boys, putting them through US high schools and university, some going on to medical school.

In 1965 the chimps he had inoculated became ill and started to die, a UK expert on sheep scrapie confirming that they had died of the same disease that had affected the Fore tribe. Obviously the disease was caused by an infectious agent, or prion as we would now call it.

He was a prolific writer, with 159 papers to his name in 1976 when he was awarded a Nobel prize after which he went on to publish a further 450 papers. He retired to Amsterdam and France but spent his winters in Tromso where he died in his hotel room.

Different obituary writers have described him as a genius, a polymath, charming, wily, energetic, recalcitrant and unpredictable. He was certainly a giant in medical research.