D. Carleton Gajdusek


D. Carleton Gajdusek

My scientific interests started before my school years, when as a boy of five years I wandered through gardens, fields and woods with my mother’s entomologist-sister, Tante Irene, as we overturned rocks and sought to find how many different plant and animal species of previously hidden life lay before us. We cut open galls to find the insects responsible for the tumors, and collected strange hardening gummy masses on twigs which hatched indoors to fill the curtains with tiny praying mantises, and discovered wasps with long ovipositors laying their eggs into the larvae of wood-boring beetles. In petri dishes we watched some leaf-eating insects succumb to insecticide poison while others survived, and on exciting excursions visited the laboratories and experimental greenhouses of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in my hometown of Yonkers, New York, where my aunt, Irene Dobroscky, worked, studying in the 1920’s virus inclusions in the cells of leaf-hoppers.

In my first years at school I had problems with my teachers for carrying to school insect-killing jars, correctly labeled “Poison: potassium cyanide”. As a grade schoolboy, I met at the Boyce Thompson Institute laboratories the quiet, amused, watchful and guiding eyes of the mathematician and physical chemist, Dr. William J. Youden, who enjoyed letting me play with his hand cranked desk calculator, with his circular or cylindrical slide rules, and with models of crystal lattice structure, and on his laboratory bench where he taught me to prepare colloidal gold solution time color reactions and to manufacture mercuric thiocyanate snake-generating tablets. Before I was ten years old I knew that I wanted to be a scientist like my aunt and my quiet mathematician tutor. I rejected completely, as did my younger brother, Robert, who is now a poet and critic, the interests of our father and maternal grandfather in business, which had made our life style possible.

My life and outlook were greatly influenced by the polyglot immigrant Eastern European communities, adjacent and unwillingly interlaced, living in the carpet, elevator and copper wire manufacturing and sugar refining city of Yonkers, just upstream on the Hudson River from the New York megalopolis and possessing a schoolbook history of a Seventeenth Century Royal Dutch land grant of Indian land to Johng Heer (hence Yonkers) Adrian van der Donck. The cimbalon in our living room, beside the piano, Romanian and Hungarian gypsies who fiddled the czardas and halgatos at our family festivities and camped in the empty store adjacent to my father’s butcher shop, an uninterrupted flow of loud conversation in many tongues, rarely English, and kitchen odors of many Habsburg cuisines filling our crowded expanded-family-filled home, gave me an orthodox and optimistic view of America as a land of change and possibility which I never lost. Below our almost rural hilltop home – our family had “risen” – clustered the factories, churches, shops and two to four family houses of immigrant factory workers and tradesmen in the valleys of the almost obliterated Nepperhan and Tuckahoe Indian-named creeks. In this hollow stood Hungarian, Slovak and Polish Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches and a Presbyterian mission to the factory workers. (This exciting conglomeration of Eastern Europeans has been later displaced by Mediterranean and Caribbean and, still later, Black Americans, all similarly “melting”. )

My father, Karl Gajdusek, was a Slovak farm boy from a small village near Senica, who had left home as an adolescent youth to emigrate to America before World War I, alone and without speaking English, to become a butcher in the immigrant communities of Yonkers, where he met and married my mother, Ottilia Dobroczki. Her parents had also come, each alone, as youthful immigrants from Debrecen, Hungary to America. On my father’s side we were a family of farmers and tradesmen, vocations which never interested my brother or myself, but my father’s temperament for laughter and ribald fun, lust for life in work and play, music, song, dance and food, and above all, conversation; affected us strongly. On my mother’s side were the more somber academic and aesthetic aspirations of four university educated first generation American siblings and a heroic interest in fantasy and inquiry, in the classics and culture, nature, nurture and process. Because of my mother’s unquenchable interest in literature and folklore, my brother and I were reared listening to Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, Plutarch and Virgil long before we learned to read.

I was born on September 9, 1923 in the family home we still own, while my maternal grandparents and my mother’s youngest sister shared the home. My brother arrived nineteen months later. He and I grew up closely together; for every move I made further into mathematics and the sciences, he moved further into poetry, music and the other arts. In 1930 we traveled to Europe to visit our relatives, mostly those of my father’s large family, which he had abandoned twenty years earlier. My brother and I were left for months in my father’s birthplace with his old father and the huge remaining family (the squire had sired some twenty five children), while our parents toured European capitals.

Back in America, my early school years were those of great happiness: I liked school and the enchanting family excursions up the Hudson valley were frequent. My Tante Irene was working on problems of economic entomology in the Philippines and South East Asia, and exotic artifacts and natural history specimens, particularly the beautiful giant leafhoppers clad in batiklike patterns, arrived to fascinate me. On her return from the Orient she took me on ever broader excursions to collect insects, to watch the emergence of the seventeen-year cicadas and to attend scientific meetings in the American Museum of Natural History. I became an early habitué of New York city’s museums, attending courses on Egyptology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on schoolday afternoons after my fifth grade classes and at weekend and evening lectures on entomology, geology and botany at the Museum of Natural History.

Today, I and my large family of adopted sons from New Guinea and Micronesia still occupy, on our frequent visits to New York city, our family home in which I was born fifty-three years ago. Here, the boys recently discovered, while installing new attic insulation, daguerreotypes and tintypes of the family taken in towns east of the Danube and in turn-of-the-century New York city and also school notebooks which once belonged to my mother, her siblings, my brother, and myself. From this home, too, we buried both of my maternal grandparents, and my father and mother. On the occasion of my pagan mother’s death, the unavoidably close proximity of Slovak Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, both named Holy Trinity, led to the confusion which resulted in burying her with ministrations of the wrong denomination, which she would have enjoyed, when I attempted to assuage, by asking the funeral director to call in the priest, the pious Roman Catholic relatives of my irreverent father, at whose earlier funeral the Slovak priest had declined to officiate.

I started to read seriously before puberty. Books by Scandinavian authors, Henrik Ibsen and Sigrid Undset, were among the earlier works I read myself. I devoured enthusiastically three biographical works which must have had a profound effect on me: René Vallery-Radot’s biography of his father-in-law, Louis Pasteur; Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie Curie; and Paul de Kruif’s “Microbe Hunters.” I then stenciled the twelve names of microbiologists whom de Kruif had selected on the steps leading to my attic chemistry laboratory, where they remain today. At about this time, when I was about ten years old, I wrote an essay on why I planned to concentrate on chemistry, physics, and mathematics, rather than classical biology, in preparation for a career in medicine. Dr. Youden had succeeded in making it clear to me that education in mathematics, physics and chemistry was the basis for the biology of the future.

During the summers of my thirteenth to sixteenth years, I was often working at the Boyce Thompson Laboratories. Under Dr. John Arthur’s tutelage, I synthesized and characterized a large series of halogenated aryloxyacetic acids, many previously unsynthesized. The series of new compounds I derived from these failed to yield the fly-killing potency anticipated, but when they were tested several years later for their phytocidal capacity one of my new compounds, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, became the weed killer of commerce; and the Institute based its patent rights to royalties on my boyhood laboratory notebooks – the only venture I have had which involved commerce.

My experiences at the Boyce Thompson, especially with Youden, directed me towards physics at the University of Rochester, where I hoped to fulfill my plan, formulated in boyhood from my readings and teachings of my aunt and Youden, of studying mathematics, physics, and chemistry in preparation for a career in medical research.

From 1940 to 1943 I studied at the University of Rochester under Victor Weisskopf in physics; Curt Stern, Don Charles, David Goddard, Jim Goodwin, in biology; Vladimir Seidel in mathematics; and Ralph Helmkamp in chemistry. In the summer of 1941 I was inspired by the marine embryology course of Viktor Hamburger’s at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratories. In those years of my teens I learned to love mountaineering, hiking, canoeing and camping with a passion as great as that for science.

At nineteen to twenty-two years of age while at Harvard Medical School, I worked with John T. Edsall in the laboratory of protein physical chemistry, and with James L. Gamble in his laboratory of electrolyte balance at Boston Children’s Hospital. Thereafter, at ages of twenty-five and twenty-six, I worked at Caltech with Linus Pauling and John Kirkwood, where I was also greatly influenced by Max Delbrück, George Beadle, Walter Zechmeister and James Bonner. It was at Caltech that my peers – fellow postdoctoral students and young investigators (Gunther Stent, Jack Dunitz, Elie Wollman, Benoit Mandelbrot, David Shoemaker, John Cann, Harvey Itano, Aage Bohr, Ole Maaloe, Ted Harold, John Fincham, Reinhart Ruge, Arnold Mazur, Al Rich, and others) – had a profound effect on my intellectual development, goals and appreciation of quality in creative life, and on my career. This was the “Golden Age” at Caltech and the many close friends working in several different disciplines, as well as our mentors, have remained mutually stimulating coworkers in science and, above all, lasting personal friends for the past thirty years. With the group of students about Linus Pauling, John Kirkwood, Max Delbrück and George Beadle, I spent many days and evenings in wideranging discussions in the laboratories and at the Atheneum, and in even more protracted exchanges on camping and hiking trips to the deserts and mountains of the West, of Mexico and Canada. Max and Mannie Delbrück were often the hosts for our group at their home, and the prime organizers of many of our expeditions. This period of less than two years at Caltech has given me a group of friends who are interested critics of my work, who together with my major teachers in clinical and laboratory investigation, comprise, perhaps unwittingly, the jury whose judgements I most respect.

I had not counted on my captivation with clinical pediatrics. Children fascinated me, and their medical problems (complicated by the effect of variables of varying immaturity, growth, and maturation upon every clinical entity that beset them) seemed to offer more challenge than adult medicine. I lived and worked within the walls of Boston Children’s Hospital through much of medical school. Thereafter, I started my postgraduate specialty training in clinical pediatrics which I carried through to Specialty Board qualification, while also working in the laboratory of Michael Heidelberger at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, while at Caltech, and while with John Enders on postgraduate work at Harvard. I have never abandoned my clinical interests, particularly in pediatrics and neurology, which were nurtured by a group of inspiring bedside teachers: Mark Altschuler, Louis K. Diamond, William Ladd, Frank Ingraham, Sidney Gellis, and Canon Ely at Harvard; Rustin McIntosh, Hattie Alexander, Dorothy Anderson, and Richard Day at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York; Katie Dodd, Ashley Weech, Joe Warkany, and Sam Rappaport at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Ted Woodward of Baltimore.

In 1951 I was drafted to complete my military service from John Enders’ laboratory at Harvard to Walter Reed Army Medical Service Graduate School as a young research virologist, to where I was called by Dr. Joseph Smadel. I found that he responded to my over-ambitious projects and outlandish schemes with severity and metered encouragement, teaching me more about the methods of pursuing laboratory and field research, and presenting scientific results, than any further theoretical superstructure, which he assumed I already possessed.

From him and from Marcel Baltazard of the Institut Pasteur of Teheran, where I worked in 1952 and 1953 on rabies, plague, arbovirus infections, scurvy and other epidemic disease in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, I learned of the excitement and challenge offered by urgent opportunistic investigations of epidemiological problems in exotic and isolated populations. My quest for medical problems in primitive population isolates took me to valleys of the Hindu Kush, the jungles of South America, the coast and inland ranges of New Britain, and the swamps and high valleys of Papua New Guinea and Malaysia, but always with a base for quiet contemplation and exciting laboratory studies with John Enders in Boston, Joe Smadel in Washington, and Frank Burnet in Melbourne. To these teachers I am indebted for guidance and inspiration and for years of encouragement and friendship.

To Joe Smadel I also owe the debt of further sponsorship and encouragement, and recognition of my scientific potential for productive research which led him to create for me several years later a then unique position as an American visiting scientist at the National Institutes of Health, in the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, under Dr. Richard Masland, wherein I could nurture my diverse interests in a selfstyled Study of Child Growth and Development and Disease Patterns in Primitive Cultures. Our Laboratory of Slow, Latent and Temperate Virus Infections grew out of the elucidation of one of our “disease patterns”, kuru, and blossomed into a new field of medicine. For about two decades I have enjoyed at the National Institutes of Health the base and haven for our diverse studies in remote parts of the world together with a small group of students and coworkers and many visiting colleagues who have formed the strong team of our endeavor. Here, Marion Poms, Joe Gibbs, Paul Brown, Vin Zigas, Michael Alpers, David Asher and Nancy Rogers have shared these adventures with me through almost two decades.

My boyhood reading, first in Homer, Virgil, and Plutarch, on which we were nurtured by our Classicist-Romanticist Hungarian mother, led, upon the instigation of my poet brother, to my more thorough return to the classics as a young, too-ardent scientist-cum-physician, and to the modern literature of European authors and philosophers, which I had missed in my university days devoted too exclusively to mathematics and the sciences. This reading changed greatly my way of thinking. Particularly, I would have to credit Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy; Montaigne, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery and Gide; Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Lawrence; Poe, Whitman and Melville; Ibsen; Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka and Mann; Saadi and Hafiz.

In 1954 I took off for Australia to work as a visiting investigator with Frank Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne from where, between periods of bench work in immunology and virology, I launched studies on child development and disease patterns with Australian aboriginal and New Guinean populations.

In eighteen volumes of some five thousand pages of published personal journals on my explorations and expeditions to primitive cultures, I have told far more about myself and my work since 1957, when I first saw kuru, under the guidance of Vincent Zigas, than one should in a lifetime … I do not see how I can précis that here.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1976, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1977

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

D. Carleton Gajdusek died on December 12, 2008.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1976

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