Daniel Carleton Gajdusek Biography

(Former physician, medical researcher known for early discovery of prion disease)

Birthday: September 9, 1923 (Virgo)

Born In: Yonkers, New York, United States

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was an American physicist and medical researcher best known for winning the 1976 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Born to a butcher, Daniel was always inclined toward science from an early age. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Rochester and later attended Harvard University. His contribution to the world of medicine came in the 1950s when he began his research on the incurable deadly disease Kuru, which was killing the population in Papua New Guinea. He concluded that the disease was spread due to the ritualistic eating of ancestors in the tribe named the Fore. It was a major breakthrough in the field of medicine as he discovered a new family of pathogens known as prions. For his achievements, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1976 and spent the next two years touring around Europe and America giving lectures. In 1996, he was accused of sexually abusing a foster child that he had adopted. He pled guilty and was sent to prison for a year. Following his release, he moved to Europe and worked there till the end of his life.

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Quick Facts

Died At Age: 85

Family:

father: Karol Gajdusek

mother: Ottilia Dobroczki.

siblings: Robert E. Gajdusek

Born Country: United States

Physicians American Men

Died on: December 12, 2008

place of death: Tromsø, Norway

Notable Alumni: Harvard Medical School, University Of Rochester

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Medicine

U.S. State: New Yorkers

City: Yonkers, New York

More Facts

education: University of Rochester, Harvard Medical School

awards: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1976)

Childhood & Early Life

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born on September 9, 1923, in New York City, into a lower-middle-class family. His father Karol Gajdusek was a butcher. He grew up with a younger brother.

It was due to his maternal aunt Tante Irene that Daniel’s interest in science flourished as a kid. When he was 5 years old, he would walk into the gardens and woods with his aunt and talk about how many plants and animals remained undiscovered by then. He would also visit Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research with his aunt on occasions. He also met Institute’s chemist and mathematician Willian J. Youden, who inspired Daniel to pursue the field upon growing up.

By the time he was 10 years old, he had decided to become a scientist. However, his father wanted him to join the family trade of being a butcher, but Daniel was sure about his goal to study science and mathematics.

In his teenage years, he read all sorts of books written on scientific and mathematical subjects. He also kept visiting the Boyce Thompson Institute throughout his teen years. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Rochester to study Physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics.

He later attended Harvard University and earned an M.D. degree from the college in 1946. Later, he also completed his postdoctoral research at the Colombia University and California Institute of Technology.

In the 1950s, he was drafted into the U.S. Army as a research virologist. There he proved that the haemorrhagic fever was killing the soldiers in South Korea and that migratory birds were responsible for it. He later attended the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, in Melbourne, Australia. It was here that he began his work which finally brought him to win a Nobel Prize.

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Kuru & The Nobel Prize

One of the primary focuses of his research was a disease named kuru. It was prevalent in Papua New Guinea, in a tribe named the Fore. It was an endemic which was an incurable and always fatal neurogenerative disease. While it has almost disappeared now, it was widespread in the 1950s and 1960s among some tribes of Guinea.

Through his intense research into the disease and its causes, Daniel discovered that the disease was widespread among the population that engaged in endocannibalism, which the Fore people had taken from another nearby tribe. As the practice was eliminated from the people, the disease disappeared from the population within a span of a few decades.

The disease had caught the attention of the medical community worldwide. It was known as ‘laughing sickness’ as many patients suffering from the ailment would have their muscles contracted in a way that looked like a grin. Daniel was the first one to give a medical description of the condition. For his research, he lived among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea and learned their language and culture. As he moved ahead with his research, he discovered that Kuru had uncanny similarities with another disease named Scrapie, which was mostly found among sheep and goats.

Upon performing autopsies on the victims of the disease, he concluded that the disease was transmitted by the cannibalistic practice of the ritual of eating the brains of their deceased ancestors. He transmitted the disease to a few primates to demonstrate his findings. He also explained why the disease slowly progressed.

This study brought him on the world stage for the first time as it explained the causes of another major brain disease named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. He also established that these diseases were not really caused by viruses but other infectious microbes called prions. Upon successfully establishing his studies, he strongly disputed stopping the practice of cannibalism.

In 1958, he became the head of the National Institute of Health, NIH. For his research and his contribution to the elimination of the disease, he was awarded a Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.

Despite his in-depth studies of the disease, it was still disputable whether the tribesmen practised cannibalism. Daniel himself said that he never witnessed the ritual firsthand during his long stay there. He said that women kept the scraps of brains of their deceased ancestors in their nails, which would later be transferred to the children, causing them to develop the infection later in their lives.

After he won the Nobel, he spent less time handling his duties at the NIH and more time touring around the universities, and giving lectures. He was also given honorary degrees by many universities. He had more than 130 honorary degrees from different universities across the country and the world.

Child Molestation & Imprisonment

Daniel was a celebrity scientist in the 1970s and 1980s following a Nobel victory. That dream life came to halt in April of 1996 when Daniel was arrested in Maryland, where he lived at that time. He had just returned from Europe from an academic trip. He was accused of sexually molesting a teenage boy who was in his foster care. He was also accused of raping multiple other children.


He had brought 56 children during his research trips to the south pacific. They were all male children from poor background. He brought the kids to the United States to help them with their education so that they could forge a better life for themselves. It was decades ago. In the mid-1990s, one of those boys stood up and accused Daniel of sexual harassment of his and other children.

This was a major setback to his reputation and he resigned from the NIH, in which he held a top position for more than 35 years. He was bailed out by some friends and colleagues of his. However, his diary entries and statements from a victim were irrefutable evidence against him and he ended up pleading guilty in 1997. He was only given a 12 months prison sentence owing to a plea bargain.

Following his release from prison in 1998, he was asked to leave the country on probation for five years. He stayed in Europe during his probation period and worked on the polar fleece.

He never returned to the United States and spent the remainder of his life in Norway and Amsterdam.

While he was best known for his work as a virologist, Daniel was also an expert in the fields of child growth and development in primitive cultures, learning and behaviour, genetics, and neurological patterning and learning.

Personal Life & Death

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek never married. He was gay, which he later admitted during his trial for sexual abuse of children.

Daniel was openly in favour of incest and admitted that he was not ashamed of what he did.

Daniel passed away on December 12, 2008, in Norway. He was 85 years old at the time of his death.

See the events in life of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek in Chronological Order

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