Carleton Gajdusek

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 21 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b15
  1. Caroline Richmond

    Discoverer of prions and Nobel prize winner

    After painstaking research in New Guinea, the US paediatrician and neuroscientist Carleton Gajdusek, a great maverick of science, was awarded a Nobel prize in 1976 for “discovering a completely new infectious agent.” This was the discovery of what he called slow viruses, now called prions. He was also a convicted paedophile. He was a polymath and genius, charming, wily and energetic. He was interested in clinical and laboratory medicine and in ethnography. He was recalcitrant and unpredictable, and he kept prolific diaries which were to prove his undoing.

    When kuru, scrapie, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease were first noted it was assumed, wrongly, that all infectious agents were living things. It took a long time to convince the scientific world that they could be self replicating but not alive.

    Gajdusek was born in Yonkers, New York, the son of east European immigrants. His father was a butcher. His favourite childhood books were biographies of Pasteur and the Curies, and The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, a romantic account of the pioneers …

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