Pediatrician, virologist, and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born in 1923 and grew up in Yonkers, New York. His father Karl was a Slovak who emigrated to the United States and became a butcher; his mother Ottilia Dobroczki was the child of Hungarian immigrants. Young Gajdusek dissected insects with his entomologist aunt as a boy and stencilled the names of 13 bacteriologists that he read about in the book The Microbe Hunters on the stairs leading up to his attic laboratory. Clearly he was a boy bent on science. An eccentric genius, he graduated from the University of Rochester at age 20 and received a medical degree from Harvard Medical School when he was 23. He did clinical training at several major hospitals in the US and at 25 was appointed a senior fellow of the National Research Council at California Institute of Technology; in 1949, aged 26, he was appointed a research fellow at Harvard and a senior fellow at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Pretty impressive for a guy not yet 30 years of age.

Gajdusek travelled around the world investigating infectious and childhood diseases. He worked for a time in Australia, and while there began to study the Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea. During his second trip to New Guinea in 1957 a local doctor, Vin Zigas, introduced him to the Fore and neighbouring people of the highlands, who suffered from a baffling disease of the nervous system which they called kuru, the "trembling disease". We now know that kuru is a type of spongiform encephalitis (as is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and mad cow disease), but at the time it was simply a fascinating mystery to Gajdusek and his small team. Kuru was seemingly infectious but produced no immune response in the infected, and might lie dormant for decades before victims began to show signs of illness. The first symptoms were generally a shaking demeanour; the victims soon became unable to stand, talk, or eat, and usually died within a year of the first onset of symptoms. Their brains proved, after autopsy, to be covered with lesions.

It couldn't have been easy working in the remote highlands of New Guinea with these "primitive" people who were still, at the time, practicing cannibalism. It was the custom of the Fore to hold elaborate funerary rites for the dead, lovingly pulling apart the bodies of the dead and then cooking and eating them; the men consumed the meat, the women and children the brains and offal. Gajdusek inserted himself into this ritual, gaining access to the bodies of the dead by offering people items like matches, axes, and knives in exchange. He performed open-air autopsies on bodies he thus obtained, despairing at watching the corpses' relatives dipping their hands into the skulls and opened body cavities of the cadavers. They were not offended by what he was doing unless he did it in secret; as long he did his dissections where they could see and participate, the Fore had no trouble with his work. In spite of the contamination of his samples by probing relatives' hands, he obtained and sent kuru-ridden brain and organ samples to Melbourne and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for analysis.

In 1958 he returned to the United States to head the section researching child growth and disease patterns in "primitive" cultures at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disease and Blindness. While there he tried to transmit kuru to lab animals; William Hadlow, a veterinarian who had studied scrapie (a disease common in sheep and similar to kuru) suggested that animals could be innoculated with homogenized brain tissue and, after a period of incubation, develop the disease. Sure enough, chimpanzees contracted kuru after two years. This was the first time that chronic noninflammatory diseases were shown to lie dormant for a long time and then cause symptoms. For their research on proving that these kinds of diseases are infectious Gajdusek and his colleague Baruch S. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1976. In addition to his work in virology, Gajdusek is an expert in child growth and development, genetics, immunology, and neurological patterning and learning.

For many years Gajdusek had been bringing children, mostly boys, from Micronesia to the United States and had raised dozens of them himself; he had several children with him when he accepted his Nobel Prize. For years he had been saying they were legally adopted, but apparently that wasn't true. In the late 1990s Gajdusek was charged with child abuse and "perverted sexual practices"; his house was searched and no adoption papers were found. His colleagues rallied around him and posted his bail, but he eventually pleaded guilty to two charges in return for a reduced sentence of up to one year in prison and five on probation. So the famous Nobel Prize-wining scientist is also a pedophile.

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