Tuesday 28 January 2014


I've bigged myself up by claiming to have been on intimate terms with (aka in the same room as) several Nobel Prize winners.  Until I wrote about my Dad's sad conundrum yesterday, I had completely forgotten another Nobellist with whom I exchanged two sentences at the end of the last century.  I was then working in (one of) the top-flight departments in Ireland. The Chief was a superlative networker and, no more than me, a serious Nobel groupie.  One day a strange bear of a man rocked up to morning coffee with El Jefe and it transpired that Ursus might be coming to spend some sort of sabbatical in the department. I met my good friend Pepe Malpica when he came on sabbatical, so I thought another such was a Good Thing . . . in principal. Turned out to be Carleton Gajdusek, an anthropologist who had made amazing discoveries in New Guinea in the 1950s.  The community Gajdusek was embedded in and studying suffered from a strange disease called Kuru that was symptomatically similar to a fatal degenerative neural ataxia disorder (meaning they walk wonky and then die) called scrapie in sheep.  Those unfortunates who inevitably succumbed to the disease also revealed the same sort of characteristic lesions in their brains. Gajdusek did the autopsies; he also worked out that the mechanism of transmission was through ritual funerary cannibalism.  That's pretty cool as a successful research project and Gajdusek was awarded a half share of the 1976 Nobel for Medicine.  I think most of us were a little in awe of  this distinguished visitor, so there wasn't much chit-chat.

This was years before Wikipedia became a twinkle in the eye of Jimmy Wales and Google was just a struggling hatchling (remember Atlavista anyone?), so instant information gratification was not freely available for all.  The following day, however, new information was seeping under the front door and spreading rapidly across our community.  Soon enough we all had our metaphorical feet wet with the news that, as well as being embedded in the culture he was studying, Gajdusek was bedding a lot of their young chaps in his hut.  He was furthermore sponsoring them to come back to the US with him to get a Western education.  More then 50 of these youngsters, a generation from sporting phallocrypts and eating their grandfather's brains went off to school in the US.  Years later, one of these fellows denounced Gajdusek, who was duly convicted of child molestation and did 12 months in chokey.  After serving his time he was allowed to go to Europe on unsupervised probation and it was towards the beginning of his itinerary round the Old Continent that he turned up in Dublin.

The newly informed atmosphere was decidedly chillier the following day as people passed their own judgment on the old (75 y.o.) man.  Whether for that collective shoulder or the promise of better croissants elsewhere, he drifted out of our lives about as quickly as he'd appeared, lived in Amsterdam and Paris and finally died ten years later in Tromsø. You can hear Gajdusek's side of the story as a 10 minute clip from a longer documentary: he's quite 'black'; you can also hear there a faceless 'white' voiceover tsk-tsking about the whole worrying story. Do you think that the truth of some of those 50 tales might be in the wide spectrum of grey? With my skittery moral compass, I try to reflect on how I would behave in particular and maybe peculiar circumstances that have been condemned-by-all afterwards.  I don't think I behaved terribly well in l'affaire Gajdusek, my position was flabby and sheepish (in both senses), poorly considered and rather shallow.   I doubt if, presented with a similar situation now, I would behave much better.  But then neither would you.

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