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Daniel Carleton Gajdusek

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (born September 9 1923 in Yonkers, New York, USA) is an American physician and medical researcher of Slovakian-Hungarian descent, who was the co-recipient (with Baruch S. Blumberg) of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for work on kuru, the first prion disease ever described. His later life was marred by a criminal conviction for child molestation.



Work on kuru

He received the award in recognition of his study of a remarkable disease, kuru (Fore word for "trembling"). This disease was rampant among the South Fore people of New Guinea in the 1950s and 1960s. Gajdusek correctly connected the prevalence of the disease with the practice of funerary cannibalism, practiced by the South Fore. With elimination of this practice, Kuru disappeared among the South Fore within a generation.

Vincent Zigas, a district medical officer in the Fore Tribe region of New Guinea first introduced Gajdusek to Kuru. Gajdusek provided the first medical description of this unique neurological disorder, which was also known as the "laughing sickness". He lived among the Fore, studied their language and culture and performed autopsies on kuru victims. Gajdusek correctly concluded that the disease was transmitted in the ritualistic eating of the brains of deceased relatives, which was practiced by the Fore. Though Gajdusek was not able to identify the infective agent that spreads kuru, further research led to the identification of rogue proteins called prions as the cause of kuru.


Gajdusek's father was from Slovakia and his mother from Debrecen, Hungary, who emigrated to the U.S. and settled down in Yonkers, where their son was born. Gajdusek graduated in 1943 from the University of Rochester (New York), where he studied Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. He obtained an M.D. from Harvard University in 1946. He performed postdoctoral research at Columbia, Caltech and Harvard before being drafted to complete military service at the Walter Reed Army Medical Service Graduate School as a research virologist. He held a position at the Institut Pasteur in Tehran from 1952 to 1953, where he was excited by the challenges "offered by urgent opportunistic investigations of epidemiological problems in exotic and isolated populations". In 1954 he went to work as a visiting investigator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. It was here he began the work that culminated in the Nobel prize.

He became head of laboratories for virological and neurological research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1958 and was inducted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1974 in the discipline of microbial biology.

Child molestation conviction

In the course of his research trips in the South Pacific, Gajdusek had brought children back to live with him in the United States, to better their education. He was later accused by one of these, now an adult man, of sexually molesting him as a child.

Gajdusek was charged with child molestation in April 1996, based on incriminating entries in his laboratory entries, statements from a victim and his own admission. He pleaded guilty in 1997 and, under a plea bargain, was sentenced to 19 months in jail. After his release in 1998, he was permitted to serve his 5-year probation in Europe. Gajdusek's treatment had been denounced from October 1996 as anti-elitist and unduly harsh by Edinburgh University psychologist Chris Brand, who was subsequently fired for bringing the university into disrepute.


  • Gajdusek, Daniel, Autobiography, Les Prix Nobel, 1976.
  • Karolinska Institutet, Press Release: The 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1976.
  • Rhodes, Richard, Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

NAME Gajdusek, Daniel Carleton
SHORT DESCRIPTION Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher
DATE OF BIRTH September 9 1923
PLACE OF BIRTH Yonkers, New York, U.S.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Daniel_Carleton_Gajdusek". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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