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Gajdusek (D. Carleton) Papers
MSS 0421  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Restrictions
  • Restrictions
  • Acquisition Information
  • Preferred Citation
  • Biography
  • Publication Rights
  • Scope and Content of Collection

  • Descriptive Summary

    Languages: English
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla 92093-0175
    Title: D. Carleton Gajdusek Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0421
    Physical Description: 14 Linear feet (35 archives boxes)
    Date (inclusive): 1926-1997
    Abstract: The collection contains the papers of D. Carleton Gajdusek, virologist and medical researcher who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discoveries concerning a new mechanism for the origin and dissemination of infectious disease. This research originated as Gajdusek sought to understand kuru, a unique and fatal condition whose victims were among the Fore people of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.


    Video recordings are restricted. Users may request viewing copies be produced in advance of their visit.


    Gajdusek's 1995 "Journal of a Year of Disentanglement" is restricted until December 2038 by request of his archives executor.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 1996-1997.

    Preferred Citation

    D. Carleton Gajdusek Papers, MSS 421. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.


    Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born in Yonkers, New York, on September 9, 1923. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1943 before receiving his M.D. from Harvard University in 1946. After residencies at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Babies Hospital New York, and Children's Hospital Cincinnati, he served as a fellow in pediatrics and infectious diseases at Harvard from 1949-1952. He then served a year as a captain in the Medical Corps at Walter Reed Army Medical Service Graduate School, studying hemorrhagic fever in Korea and in the USSR.
    Gajdusek began his Nobel-Prize-winning research in 1955 after holding research positions at Cal Tech, at the Institut Pasteur in Tehran, the University of Maryland, and at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. This was the beginning of Gajdusek's decades-long personal and scientific association with the peoples of Papua New Guinea, described in almost daily detail in his journals and in numerous scientific papers and lectures. In Papua New Guinea, Gajudsek co-discovered and provided the first medical description of kuru, a fatal degenerative disorder of the central nervous system unique to the Fore people of the Eastern Highlands Province of that island. Later Gajdusek and others would conclude that the transmission mechanism of kuru originated from the Fore funeral custom of consuming the brains of the deceased. Women and children, kuru's primary victims, were exposed as they prepared and ingested the bodies of infected tribal members.
    In 1958, Gajdusek became director of the Study for Child Growth and Development and Disease Patterns in Primitive Cultures, and the Laboratory of Slow, Latent, and Temperate Virus Infections at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland. In 1970, he also became chief of NIH's Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies. While director of these laboratories, Gajdusek also travelled repeatedly back to Papua New Guinea, and around the world, doing additional research and giving lectures and speeches on Kuru and his "slow virus" research.
    Gajdusek's long research career at the National Institutes of Health ended in 1996, when he was charged with child abuse. Gajdusek's case never went to trial because he entered a plea agreement that required him to plead guilty to two counts of child abuse, serve nine months in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center (Maryland) and five years probation. Additionally he had to agree not to travel with any unrelated minor. He was permitted to leave the United States and subsequently lived in Europe, continuing to work and edit his yet-to-be published journals, until his death in Norway.
    Biographies about Gajdusek include his "Autobiography," (an essay written in 1976 at the time of his Nobel Prize Award) available at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ medicine/laureates/1976/gajdusek-autobio.html, Richard Rhodes' story of the discovery and interrelatedness of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and prions entitled, Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), and Warwick Anderson's The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen.
    Gajdusek died in December 2008.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Papers of virologist and medical researcher D. Carleton Gajdusek, who researched the causes and transmission of kuru, a neurodegenerative disease found among the Fore people of the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, for over four decades. The papers include a broad collection of both Gajdusek's and other scientists' early work on kuru in three bound volumes (1957-1966). Included in the collection are numbered reprints (1957-1996) of Gajdusek's research on the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) and other related subjects; Gajdusek's published and unpublished journals (1955-1996) that chronicle his daily activities during research expeditions throughout the world; and video recordings (1926-1976) and descriptive catalogs, which include footage of people with kuru, as well as other people, activities, and locations in Papua New Guinea. The collection consists solely of photocopied and published materials and does not include any original, handwritten material.
    The last series in the collection consists of files related to child abuse charges brought against Gajdusek in 1996 by two of the many children he adopted and brought back to the United States from Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, and his subsequent plea bargain agreement.
    The papers are arranged in four series: 1) BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS, 2) WRITINGS, 3) VIDEO RECORDINGS, and 4) LEGAL FILES.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Kuru -- Papua New Guinea
    Fore (Papua New Guinea people) -- Diseases
    Virologists -- United States -- Biography