22 December 2009

Book Review: Warwick Anderson, The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the protagonist-cum-storyteller Marlow begins his account with his examination by a nerve doctor:

The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. “Good, good for there,” he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like gabardine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. “I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. “And when they come back, too?” I asked. “Oh, I never see them,” he remarked; “and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.” He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. “So you are going out there. Famous. Interesting too.” He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. “Ever any madness in your family?” he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. “Is that question in the interests of science too?” “It would be,” he said, without taking notice of my irritation, “interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but…” (Conrad, 15-16).


Later on in his journey down the growing Darkness of the river Marlow discovers that the savages around him, unconquerable, monstrous, and free, are also human. “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” And then shortly thereafter Conrad offers the promise – the hope really – of escape from the atavistic:

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder – the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff – with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags – rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.


What is a cannibal if not a deliberate belief? Warwick Anderson’s stunning The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen might as well have placed that question in its opening sentence. This marvelous book deliberately forces us to re-imagine the meaning of sojourn, scientific discovery, colonialism, and sorcery, while at the same time providing us with an account of the discovery of Kuru, a lethal neurological disease, and the science that ultimately determined its etiology. In a narrative grounded in sources found in archives in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the United States, and further developed through oral histories with scientists, anthropologists, and the Fore people, Anderson shows us that the prion – an infectious protein supposedly discovered in the laboratories of Britain and the United States – was a thing constructed first through colonial aspirations and global imaginations.

It is difficult to say when and where the story of Kuru begins. Maybe it began when the Fore of Papua New Guinea first practiced sorcery. Or perhaps the story of Kuru traces its origins to the time when Australia took New Guinea as a colonial asset during the First World War. Or perhaps it really begins when the Fore made contact with the white adventurers, anthropologists, missionaries, traders, and doctors who became increasingly common in the interior by the 1950s.

Among those early figures was Gordon Linsley who made some of the first extensive anthropological notes on the Fore, which included discussions of their belief in sorcery, Kuru, and cannibalism. The Fore ritualistically consumed their dead to “incorporate them into themselves and so lessen not only the sorrow, but even the idea, of loss” (p. 15). The practice of cannibalism had continued among the Fore, even as it had become increasingly hidden from the eyes of the Whites. The White men and women who came to the interior drew no connection between the endocannibalism and Kuru. And the Fore maintained that Kuru was a curse. Despite some efforts to find a medical explanation, the Whites more or less adopted the Fore’s explanation for the shivering and trembling typical of the disease’s victims by seeking explanations in recourse to hysteria or other psycho-social phenomena. Some appealed to Walter B. Cannon’s description of “voodoo death” as an example of the power of superstition on the native mind.

Such explanations complemented a growing distaste for the Fore, which became ever-more commonplace among the anthropologists who studied them, figures, for instance, like Ronald and Catherine Berndt, who described the Fore’s kinship networks, group solidarity, and personal exchange networks while denigrating their materialism. In his poorly-received Excess and Restraint, Ronald Berndt lingered over especially sexual and violent aspects of the Fore and the supposedly orgiastic feasts that accompanied their consumption of the dead. To the Berndts – and to others – the Fore thus emerged primarily as savage creatures, primitives, problems of modern political organization, or simply as heathens. Yet, as Anderson ironically observes, the Fore and the Whites who sought to gain ever-increasing juridical and territorial control over them had more in common than either group suspected. Both groups observed in each other “shared needs and tastes” and particular patterns of consumption and value. For the Fore, “exchange proved the most sensitive and efficient mechanism for working out who these people were, what they wanted, and what use they might be” (p. 33). And the Whites seemed no less preoccupied by similar concerns. Their focus particularly on the feast – its orgiastic and deadly qualities – was but one manifestation. Interest in Kuru became another.

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was the scientist who first drew substantial international attention to Kuru. A somewhat awkward boy but a voracious reader, Gajdusek entered the University of Rochester when he was sixteen and eventually determined to study the biochemical and biophysical aspects of medicine. He had a propensity for going on long mountain hikes with large groups of young men, and from these he discovered a love of being on the road, taking at one time or another to the northern highland valleys of Iran, the tropics of Amazonia, or the wilderness of Peru. He eventually found his way to Australia under the auspices of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, where he worked with F. Macfarlane Burnet. Gajdusek came to Papua New Guinea in 1956, where he began studying child development, and hoped to continue research on tropical viruses – a hope that was met by the support of the National Institutes of Health in 1957. Gajdusek wrote to his brother that year “I am stuck with one of the most interesting problems of my life…a new disease to modern medicine” (p. 58). And so he joined the Fore almost, as Anderson writes, as a “medical cannibal” content to find a new intimacy among the “primitives” that in turn would transform him personally. Even as Gajdusek would become one of the lost souls of the Fore, their sorcery would be transformed into “genes, toxins, and infectious agents” (p. 58).

Gajdusek began the transformation of Kuru into Western science by describing the clinical picture of the disorder. Although not a neurologist, his neurological examination was precise enough to demonstrate cerebellar involvement, and left enough of an impression on the Fore, that years later some of them could perform the “dance”. Meanwhile Gajdusek set about standardizing the collection of bodily fluids and tissues. He also attempted to delineate family connections – the Fore became Anderson writes “a portable archive” (p. 75) and the bush laboratory a “local redoubt for the making or stabilization of scientific facts” (p.76) and “fashioning identities and relationships” (p. 77).

Gajdusek’s presence in New Guinea was taken as a mixed blessing by the Australians, who came only grudgingly to accept him and American science in their territory. Yet as Cold War tensions warmed with the launch of Sputnik, the biomedical industry of the United States became more globally-minded. In some large sense, the American presence in Papua New Guinea was claim-staking. And thus the territory and its inhabitants became objects of colonialism and were thus recombined within colonial and science logics. Nowhere were these facts more obvious than in the growing discussions about autopsies, which the Fore regarded both a bit askance and also as an opportunity for trade and gift exchange. The exchange of brains especially became a delicate social balance for the scientists, who sometimes haggled and other times felt an awkward social indebtedness to the Fore family that donated the deceased’s body parts. Indeed, the autopsies took place in circumstances not wholly different from those involved in other burial rites – a fact that scientists located beyond the borders of Papua New Guinea struggled to appreciate as they became ever more eager for Kuru brains. Indeed the brains had become a marker of scientific wealth and purchased on the international markets equipment, reagents, and scientific authorship. It was perhaps this symmetry that led Gajdusek to begin to speculate about relationship between cannibalism and the diseased (p. 107). Eventually he turned the Fore into his own possessions; people into things; Fore adolescents and boys into his adopted children.

Gajdusek’s pedophilic proclivities increasingly marginalized him within the scientific community. The Australian authorities wanted him out of Papua New Guinea. Against this onslaught, Gajdusek’s trump was NIH patronage, and he played the card endlessly. Yet his options might have been at an end, but for a fateful letter from William Hadlow observing distinct similarities between Kuru brains and the brains of sheep with scrapie. Intrigued, Gajdusek, with Joe Gibbs, initiated a series of inoculation experiments, first in mice and then in chimpanzees. All developed Kuru-like symptoms, leading to theories of “slow viruses”. The next step was simple: “The Kuru brain is going into everything,” Gajdusek wrote to a colleague, even as he never fully was able to claim the brain as a thing unattached to its original subject. The inoculations worked – the hypothesized slow virus had been transmitted from human to chimp. The mechanism of transmission remained uncertain, yet Gajdusek had demonstrated that something could be transmitted from human to animal. By the 1970s, the scientists had established that the mechanism of transmission was oral ingestion. By 1976, Gajdusek would be awarded the Nobel Prize for this work, even as the ultimate question remained unanswered: what caused Kuru and Kuru like diseases.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s genetic and viral transmission arguments had been fairly commonplace. Then in 1982, Stanley Prusiner of the University of California at San Francisco published a paper in Science proposing that the causative agent of the disease was a pathological protein, which he termed “prion”. Although contentious in its original formulation the “prion” theory eventually led to a Nobel for Prusiner in 1997 – it came at a time when Britain was still staggering from the agricultural impact of a Kuru like disease in cattle that came to be known euphemistically as “Mad Cow Disease”. A year earlier, Gajdusek had been incarcerated for the sexual abuse of the Fore children he had adopted. Out of prison a year later, he moved to Amsterdam, an embittered and by then deeply misunderstood man haunted by a darkness of his own making. “And so we leave him” Anderson writes, “alone now in his room in Amsterdam or inexorably traveling. Like Lord Jim, then “he passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic.” Like Jim, too, an obscure conqueror of fame” (p. 230).

But perhaps not: for surely, Gajdusek’s demons, Prusiner’s renowned megalomania, and even the deep uncertainty about the causes of the disease, and the prion’s own genetic instability are a part of the story of modernity’s dialectical entanglement with the darkness. The ambiguity that remains is whether we discovered a new agent of disease or simply a modern means of cannibalizing our subjects. It is a question of deliberate belief alone.

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