The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

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Overview

This riveting account of medical detective work traces the story of kuru, a fatal brain disease, and the pioneering scientists who spent decades searching for its cause.

When whites first encountered the Fore people in the isolated highlands of colonial New Guinea during the 1940s and 1950s, they found a people in the grip of a bizarre epidemic. Women and children succumbed to muscle weakness, uncontrollable tremors, and lack of coordination, until death inevitably supervened. Facing extinction, the Fore attributed their unique and terrifying affliction to a particularly malign form of sorcery.

The Collectors of Lost Souls tells the story of the resilience of the Fore through this devastating plague, their transformation into modern people, and their compelling attraction for a throng of eccentric and adventurous scientists and anthropologists.

Battling competing scientists and the colonial authorities, the brilliant and troubled American doctor D. Carleton Gajdusek determined that the cause of kuru was a new and mysterious agent of infection, which he called a slow virus (now called prions). Anthropologists and epidemiologists soon realized that the Fore practice of eating their loved ones after death had spread the slow virus. Though the Fore were never convinced, Gajdusek received the Nobel Prize for his discovery.

The study of kuru opened up a completely new field of medical investigation, challenging our understanding of the causes of disease. But The Collectors of Lost Souls is far more than a tantalizing case study of scientific research in the twentieth century. It is a story of how a previously isolated people made contact with the world by engaging with its science, rendering the boundary between primitive and modern completely permeable. It tells us about the complex and often baffling interactions of researchers and their erstwhile subjects on the colonial frontier, tracing their ambivalent exchanges, passionate engagements, confused estimates of value, and moral ambiguities. Above all, it reveals the "primitive" foundations of modern science.

This astonishing story links first-contact encounters in New Guinea with laboratory experiments in Bethesda, Maryland; sorcery with science; cannibalism with compassion; and slow viruses with infectious proteins, reshaping our understanding of what it means to do science.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Technology and Society:An International Journa East Asian Science

Especially valuable to the field for what it demonstrates about the possibility of writing a compelling narrative about postcolonial and postmodern complexity in a way that is both straightforward and engaging. It should be read as a venerable model for how to bring the insights of science studies to a broader audience.

Social History of Medicine - Dane Kennedy

A strikingly original and exciting work, imaginatively conceived, meticulously researched, and powerfully argued. It deserves to be widely read.

Health and History - Jasmina Brankovich

This book is a fascinating read of interest to all historians and (hopefully) scientists, and draws on Anderson's wide ranging interests in the practice of medicine in a colonial context.

Isis - Roger Cooter

Very much about possession, The Collectors of Lost Souls should be possessed by everyone and its powers to possess let loose. This is the witchcraft of history at its best.

Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland - Alice Street

In his riveting description of the exchanges and misunderstandings that constituted the search for kuru, Anderson has created that rare thing: an academic page-turner.

East Asian Science, Technology and Society: and International Journal - Pauline Kusiak

Anderson has written an admirably readable book that weaves together bio-prospecting, cannibalism, colonialism, and globalization and remarkably manages to put the complexity of human relationships at the very center of the story.

Journal of the History of Medicine - Ivan Crozier

An exemplary account of the discovery of the causes of a disease...a work of great theoretical insight.

Arena Magazine 100 - David Turnbull

This is a big story with sex, cannibalism, revolutionary scientific discoveries of unknown infectious proteins and some of the wold's most headline-catching diseases -- kuru, scrapie, CJD and BSE. The larger-than-life central character of this exotic soap opera, Nobel Prize winner Carleton Gajdusek, died in December last year [2010].

The Neuro Times - Stephen T. Capser

This marvelous book deliberately forces us to re-imagine the meaning of sojourn, scientific discovery, colonialism, and sorcery, while at the same time providing us with an account of the discovery of Kuru, a lethal neurological disease, and the science that ultimately determined its etiology.

East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal - Michael M.J. Fischer

This book is great fun to read, is worth exploring for its footnotes as well, and ends with an enigmatic literary twist that is aesthetically pleasing but also worth an anthropological recontextualizing.

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences

How kuru came to the attention of Western scientists is the story that Warwick Anderson’s stunning The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen. Anderson’s book, which deliberately forces readers to reimagine the meaning of scientific discovery, colonialism, and sorcery, situates its global narrative around sources found in archives in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the United States and further develops it through oral histories delivered by scientists, anthropologists, and the Fore people.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Inst.
In his riveting description of the exchanges and misunderstandings that constituted the search for kuru, Anderson has created that rare thing: an academic page-turner.

— Alice Street

Journal of the History of Medicine
An exemplary account of the discovery of the causes of a disease...a work of great theoretical insight.

— Ivan Crozier

Science - M. Susan Lindee

[A] magisterial account... Anderson's compelling study captures the texture of 20th-century medical fieldwork and provides insight into the social dynamics and ethical realities of globalized science and medicine. The Collector of Lost Souls persuades us that these things really happened and shows us why they matter.

Oceania - Annette Beasley

Anderson has masterfully captured the complex, exotic and often extraordinary nature of this inquiry and the idiosyncrasies of a key scientist... This is a significant book.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801890406
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 10/3/2008
  • Edition description: 20
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 338,620
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

For almost twenty years Warwick Anderson, medical doctor and historian of science, has been studying kuru, those who were infected by the disease, and the scientists who identified and investigated it. He is the author of Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines and The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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