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D. Carleton Gajdusek Papers

Identifier: MS C 565


Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of kuru, was a pediatrician, virologist and chemist whose research focused on growth, development and disease in primitive and isolated populations.


  • 1918-2009


449.86 Linear Feet (415 boxes + 4 map drawers)

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine

Language of Materials

Collection materials primarily in English

Access Restrictions

Collection is restricted. Portions of the collection are restricted according to HMD's Access to Health Information of Individuals policy. Contact the Reference Staff for information regarding access. For access to the policy and application form, please visit

Copyright and Re-use Information

Donor's copyrights were transferred to the public domain.

Privacy Information

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Biographical Note

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of kuru, was a pediatrician, virologist and chemist whose research focused on growth, development and disease in primitive and isolated populations. He was born on September 9, 1923 in Yonkers, New York. In 1943, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Rochester with a BS in biophysics. Gajdusek received his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1946 and performed a postdoctoral fellowship (physical chemistry) at the California Institute of Technology in 1948 under the tutelage of Linus Pauling. Drafted by the military in 1951, he served as a research virologist at the Walter Reed Medical Service Graduate School. He also studied viral diseases, fevers and plague in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Gajdusek often said he was more proud of his anthropological studies among the Fore and Anga people of Micronesia than he was of his clinical research.

In 1955, he took a research position in Australia, which led to his interest in New Guinea, the vast island to the north of Australia. There he conducted research on a disease known as Kuru, a degenerative neurological disorder that was rampant among the people of the South Fore tribe (Papua New Guinea). The word Kuru is derived from the Fore word meaning "to shake." With Kuru he proved the transmissibility of a kind of organism, dubbed a "slow, unconventional virus," that establishes a long-lasting infection and eventually can cause a disease. Gajdusek's research concluded that the disease, also called the "Laughing Sickness," could also be caused by the tribe's custom of honoring the dead by eating their brains. Changes in the brain of patients with Kuru demonstrated that the disease shared certain features with the infectious disease Scrapie and with Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease. Neurologist Stanley Prusiner later identified the infectious agent as an unexpected rogue form of protein called a prion. Gajdusek and Baruch S. Blumberg received the 1976 Nobel Prize "for their discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases."

Gajdusek was named Director of Laboratories for Virological and Neurological Research for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in 1958. In 1970, he was named Chief of Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at NINDS. Gajdusek was convicted on child molestation charges in 1997. After his 1998 release from jail, where he worked on two books and published five scholarly papers, he divided his time between Paris, Amsterdam and Tromso, Norway. Gajdusek died in Tromso Dec. 12, 2008.

Collection Summary

Correspondence, subject files, journals, photographs, maps, awards, and electronic media document the wide and varied scientific and ethnological career of Carleton Gajdusek. Gajdusek's multi-disciplinary interests make the collection extremely diverse and appealing to researchers in several disciplines including anthropology, biology, ethnology, geography, linguistics, medicine, primitive arts, and psychology. The bulk of the collection is contained in Series 2: Correspondence, Series 3: Subject Files, Series 10: Journals, and Series 8: Photographs. While organized into discrete intellectual series by Gajdusek, the contents within each series are largely disorganized, a reflection of Gajdusek's original order. While all attempts were made to collocate like materials together at the series level at least, researchers can expect to find items about their topics in almost every series.

The collection contains a limited amount fieldwork and epidemiological data, and no lab notebooks in the collection, especially related to Gajdusek's Nobel Prize work on Kuru. The research data that does survive is scattered throughout the Subject Files series. However, many of the original genealogical studies and kuru stories collected by Gajdusek and his Australian partner Michael Alpers survive. Gajdusek's large and diverse book library was weeded as either out of scope or poor physical condition due to flood damage incurred at the Peabody. The few medical and public health related titles were dispersed through NLM's holdings; the majority of his library consisted of out of scope ethnographic, linguistic, or government publications and were transferred to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum for redistribution to Papua New Guinea and needy other Pacific island nations. A large majority of Gajdusek's documentary film collection was transferred from the Peabody Essex Museum by Alpers to Curtin University in Perth, Australia before Gajdusek's papers were donated to NLM. Other videocassette films produced by Gajdusek and Richard Sorenson were transferred to the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archive (HSFA). A small set of third world music and language phonograph records were also transferred to the HSFA.

The Correspondence series is a mixture of personal and professional and is arranged in a combination of orderly alphabetical runs and in a miasma of subject file-like topics. There is a large Nobel Prize subseries covering his award activities. In addition to his own correspondence, the series also contains the correspondence of his mother, Ottilia Gajdusek.

The Subject Files series is similarly disarranged. Researchers will find any kuru-related epidemiological data here, along with background articles and correspondence on the wide variety of research and thought experiments conducted by Gajdusek or his partners. Of particular interest is a series of interviews conducted in 2005 with the Fore natives that helped Gajdusek in his 1950s research. These interviews shed light on the Fore's funereal and other socio-cultural practices, Gajdusek's sometimes controversial data collecting methods, and other Anglo-Fore ethnographic relationships and conflicts. There are four subseries containing data from other research projects: encephalitis patient history records from his work with a 1958 Pan American Sanitary Office study in Guatemala; a 1959 epidemic in Bolivia within a village of refugees from Uruma, Japan; a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease study; a study by lab partner M.K. Nicholson on epilepsy and rats; an unknown ALS study from 1962; and Fais Islander serological studies. Materials on these same topics are also scattered throughout individual folders within the series at large. There is also a large subseries of photographs and other images used to illustrate Gajdusek's publications. The Writings series content is similar in scope to Subject files along with a bound set of Gajdusek's collected reprints from 1950-1985 and a set of his Kuru-related research reprints from 1957-1966.

The full richness of Gajdusek's life and research is comprehensively documented in the Photographs and Journals series. Divided into format-based subseries, researchers will find an amazing breadth and depth of black and white and color photographs from across Gajdusek's life experiences. These are most accessible by the chronologically arranged photo albums subseries where one can experience the sights of Gajdusek's research travels across the Pacific, Iran, and Russia; the Nobel awards ceremony; his field labs; interactions with all varieties of peoples; and clinical images of the diseases he studied as manifested in their hosts. Photographs from his personal travels throughout the U.S. and Europe, along with friends and family in Yonkers, N.Y. and Maine, at home in Chevy Chase and Frederick, Md. (Prospect Hill and Deer Spring), are also well-represented. The slides and negatives subseries contain much duplication, but also likely hold additional images not developed as prints. Gajdusek maintained detailed journals throughout his life. The Journals series contains the many drafts and final self-published versions. The original dictation recordings for those from the 1990s are found in the Audiovisual series; many of the electronically created transcriptions drafts are also preserved in the Computer Disk series. Combined with the photograph albums, researchers can almost recreate Gajdusek's life moment to moment.

The Meetings series consists of chronologically arranged files with information related to conferences, honorary degree conferrals, and lectures. Most are from after 1970. Many of the folders are marked "did not attend" or "declined."

The Candidacy and Awards series primarily contain information about awards for which DCG was a nominator and about candidates he nominated. There is also information about a few personal awards.

The Author Files series contains writings of authors who interested Gajdusek. Some correspondence can be found here, but the contents are primarily un-annotated articles.

The Children's Drawings series contains artwork by children, and some adults, from the villages Gajdusek visited. He carried paper and colored pencils into the field and asked children to draw pictures for him. Some subjects had never encountered paper and pencil and most were not far removed from first contact with Europeans. Nearly all are marked with the date of creation and the artist's name, village, and region. A related subseries is Subject Files/PNG Kids letters, 1964-1969, which contains short letters written by village children Gajdusek interacted with during his research visits.

The small Maps and Charts series contains maps, charts, and posters related to the places visited by DCG while doing his work, principally dated from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many are hand-crafted. The areas best represented are Melanesia and Micronesia. Of particular interest are the Kuru patrol maps, which are Australian election district maps Gajdusek used to find villages and plot his research activities. Other maps and charts identify villages identifying areas of infectious diseases and villages expressing linguistic variations and divergent cultural practices, and medico-genealogical trees, which were important components of Gajdusek's research methodology. Gajdusek appeared to be an avid map collector, acquiring hundreds if not thousands of commercially produced regional, country, and city maps from all over the world. However, most were weeded as they bore no indication of use, had no relation to his research either topically or time period.

Lastly, Gajdusek produced a large set of recordings of primitive peoples and their languages on reel to reel tapes during his field work, however their whereabouts are unknown.


Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of kuru, was a pediatrician, virologist and chemist whose research focused on growth, development and disease in primitive and isolated populations.

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine


Gift, Carleton Gajdusek, 1997, Acc. #1997-002. Gift, Kenneth Haynes, executor, Acc. #2009-007/008. Gift, Peabody Essex Museum, 2009, Acc. #2009-040. Gift, Frederique Schlumberger, Dec. 2017, Acc. #2017-021.


Processed by
Lloyd S. Williams; Anatoliy Milikhiker; John Rees
Processing Completed
Aug. 2006; Sept. 2013; Jan. 2018
Encoded by
Lloyd S. Williams; John P. Rees
Finding Aid to the D. Carleton Gajdusek Papers, 1918-2009
Unverified Partial Draft
Lloyd S. Williams; Anatoliy Milikhiker; John Rees
August 2006; September 2013; January 2018
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English
Edition statement

Collecting Area Details

Part of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection Collecting Area

8600 Rockville Pike
Bldg 38/1E-21, MSC 3819
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