Some tributes to research colleagues and other contributors to our knowledge about kuru

  • Michael P. Alpers
  • Published 2008 in
    Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society…


At the meeting at the Royal Society on ‘The end of kuru: 50 years of research into an extraordinary disease’, we celebrated the impending end of the kuru epidemic and the achievements of many people who had worked on kuru over the last 50 years. Especially honoured were our two Nobel laureates, D. Carleton Gajdusek and Stanley Prusiner. It was wonderful that Carleton, in his 85th year, could attend. More than being the father of kuru research, he is the veritable guru of kuru. I am delighted to be able to offer here yet one more tribute to him. Nevertheless, there are many others whose achievements have illuminated the unfolding story of kuru and their contributions should not be forgotten. At the meeting, there were notice boards in the Marble Hall outside the Kohn Room where participants could put on display photographs, memorabilia, tributes and the like; those who had been invited to the meeting but could not attend were offered the same opportunity. I placed on the board my tribute to my colleague Clarence Joseph Gibbs Jr, entitled ‘In celebration of Joe Gibbs’, written to honour Joe at a ceremony at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland soon after his death on 16 February 2001, aged 76 years. I include extracts of it here. Joe and I were part of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies, headed by Carleton Gajdusek, which was based within the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness on the main campus of the NIH. The primate facility was set up in the countryside on land provided by the US Wildlife Service, in the beautiful woods of Patuxent, where Joe and I carried on the daily grind of the first transmission experiments with chimpanzees. We had their care, comfort and illnesses to worry about, regular clinical examinations to perform, blood to be taken and frequent filming sessions to cajole them into. Here we had a small team, with its own dynamics and its own loyalties, more tightly knit than the wider Laboratory and more intense. This team was to a large extent independent and Joe was its unquestioned leader. Mike Sulima and Al Bacote were senior members of the team. When I first wrote down the word ‘kuru’ in my clinical notes after examining one of the sick chimpanzees, Joe and I discussed the implications of this for a few minutes and he went into action: Carleton came back from Papua New Guinea (PNG) by the next available flights. He grumbled at first, but not the next day after he had seen Daisey and Georgette; Daisey, in particular, looked uncannily like human kuru. Later in the year, when the first autopsy was being done, Elisabeth Beck came to see that Joe and I were doing it right. Elisabeth took the brain back with her to London. When, in early February 1966, we received Elisabeth’s telegram saying that the pathology of the chimpanzee brain was indistinguishable from human kuru, Carleton, Joe and I were all in Bethesda. We divided the paper into three parts and wrote it in a day. With the help of Marion Poms it was typed and mailed by midnight—and published in Nature within two weeks (Gajdusek et al. 1966). Joe was a delightful and upright man, and in the same vein a rigorous scientist who took great delight in his work. He was warm and blunt, and full of quips; we were always happy to grumble about the world together. He enjoyed being part of a family, whether of colleagues, friends or relations, and took great pleasure in other people’s children. I am sorry that I did not spend more time with him fishing on the Bay. I am privileged and happy to praise and honour him now: briefly, with so much unsaid and taken as understood—as is fitting for Joe, who kept his heart warm within and never wore it on his sleeve. Mike Sulima was Joe’s right-hand man and Al Bacote the chief animal attendant. Their care of the animals was critical to the success of our work. The facilities at Patuxent were not grand but the animals were given detailed attention and tender care; they all had names and were regarded as part of the Patuxent family. When Georgette and then Daisey started acting strangely, before there were objective signs of kuru-like ataxia, it was Al who first picked it up. We spent a lot of time together in the company of Georgette and Daisey—and Joanna.and, indeed, all the other inoculated chimpanzees in the unit. Both Mike and Al were invited to the meeting in London but, regrettably, were unable to come. Marion Poms was Carleton’s secretary and the mother of all the staff of the Laboratory. Her efficiency, warmth and loyalty were essential to keeping the research programme going, both in the Bethesda labs and in support of the work out in the field—which was principally in PNG and Micronesia but by no means 3614 Reminiscences and reflections

DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.4000

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@inproceedings{Alpers2008SomeTT, title={Some tributes to research colleagues and other contributors to our knowledge about kuru}, author={Michael P. Alpers}, booktitle={Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences}, year={2008} }