By Jay Ingram
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Additional resources for Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way We Look at the Brain
By the time Gajdusek and others had started their investigations, the disease had become a threat to the very existence of the Fore: as many as two hundred people were dying of it every year in the late 1950s. Its impact was exaggerated by the fact that it was selective in its targets. Women and children of both sexes were vulnerable, adult men much less so. As a result, widowed men and motherless children were becoming more and more common. The cause was not at all obvious, and Gajdusek and those who worked with him had to throw their diagnostic net as wide as possible.
For instance, if a man or boy died, his brain belonged to his sister; a woman’s brain belonged to her son’s or brother’s wife. Even with knowledge of all this, investigators were skeptical that cannibalism might be spreading kuru. For one thing, the Fore apparently weren’t the only cannibals in New Guinea, yet they were definitely the only group succumbing to kuru. So what fatal flaw set them apart? More important, for cannibalism to be accepted as playing the key role in the spread of kuru, there had to be something for it to spread, an infectious agent of some kind.
So the understanding of scrapie was progressing as you’d expect: slowly, unsteadily, hampered by the fact that what knowledge there was of a possible infectious agent was scant and mysterious. Then a seemingly random and inauspicious event intervened and the picture changed forever. It was June 28, 1959. A colleague of Hadlow’s, William Jellison, came for a visit from the United States. The previous day, Jellison had been in London, where he had gone to a medical exhibit at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.