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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
— Alice Street
— Ivan Crozier
For a lay reader it is an extraordinarily rich story about how, in the 20th century, the idea of otherness changed so profoundly. Too fast, in some instances, for researchers to catch up and understand that it was no longer acceptable to see the world -- and its people -- as an open adventure park for scientific exploration.
Distinguished by captivating storytelling and a historiographically rigorous account of the events. Lost Souls is not only enjoyable for any interested layman, but it also provides a thoroughly researched account of a remarkable scientific adventure that spans four decades.
An excellent, even superb, volume, which combines great scholarly vigor with a well-told story on a fascinating and important topic. A highly 'teachable' book, it will also be of interest to anyone studying the Pacific who is interested in learning more about kuru and/or the history of medicine.
Essential reading for those concerned with science studies and biomedical ethics.
Who should read Collectors? Many. Transactions and translations; issues of obligation and engagement; of power, respect and autonomy arise regularly and in many contexts, not only in development settings. Undergraduate students will be struck by the dependence of the high-tech of contemporary science on fragile personal relationships. Apprentice historians can learn much from Anderson's narration of a story where the voices are many and the issues grave. Especially in relation to Gajdusek, I find his stance exemplary. He is chronicler, not biographer; he avoids the temptation to interpret, speak for, reduce to, explain away; he accords Gajdusek both the majesty of his achievement and the dignity of his tragedy.
Heavily inflected by anthropological method and narrative style, Anderson's account of Gajdusek's career is captivating. This master historian of medicine has taken his expertise into the field with great success.
An outstanding book that is must reading for anyone interested in the history of medical science. It will help place in perspective the broad influence, the triumph, and the ultimate tragedy of the life of Nobel Laureate D. Carleton Gajdusek.
This is not a textbook; the scientific, sociological or administrative accounts are readily available elsewhere. It is a saga of proportions seen before in tales such as Jonah and the Whale, or the magical mystery of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yet the kuru story is true and this book about it demands to be read from the beginning to the end.
Anderson's book is a valuable and sometimes provocative contribution to the study of science and medicine in colonial and post-colonial contexts. He shows how the relationships between scientific researchers and their 'tribal' research subjects have changed in the past 50 years. Modern bioethics has constructed welcome limits to research activities in this regard, but these limits are often defined purely from the perspective of the western world. Anderson gives an eloquent voice to other concepts and shows that truly global bioethics still face many challenges.
Warwick Anderson in The Collectors of Lost Souls offers his readers a profound and historically-nuanced account of kuru as a force in shaping modernity.
Far from offering a rational, detached, absolute way of approaching the world of objects and people, in Anderson's treatment science -- and particularly scientific exchange -- is as shot through with venality, avarice, outsized appetites and complicated entanglements as other human interactions. In his meticulous and multi-layered study, Anderson does an excellent job of negotiating the thin line between titillating details and scholarly analysis