D. Carleton Gajdusek

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

September 9, 1923 - December 12, 2008

Scientific Discipline: Microbial Biology
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1974)

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was an infectious disease specialist most widely known for his characterization of certain “slow” viral infections, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and kuru, which cause gradual degeneration of the nervous system and eventual death. Before Gajdusek successfully inoculated primates with brain serum that transmitted these infections, no one knew what caused the diseases, where they could be found, or how they could be avoided. His discovery was recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.

As an undergraduate, Gajdusek studied mathematics, chemistry, and physics at the University of Rochester, and he completed his medical degree at Harvard in 1946. He entered pediatric residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City and Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. After two additional research fellowships and a year working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Gajdusek began working overseas, studying various infectious diseases in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

He joined the National Institutes of Health in 1958, leading a research laboratory where the infectious nature of kuru was confirmed, and he remained in this position, with extensive international collaboration, until 1997.

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