The Saga of Carleton Gajdusek, a Brilliant Scientist - - and an Accused Pedophile
12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
On October 8, the state of Maryland will put on trial a distinguished scientist. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, winner of a Nobel prize for medicine in 1976, famed for his work with primitive New Guinea tribes, and a man whose friends describe him as "some kind of genius," stands charged with molesting two of his adopted sons.
The case against him appears unusually strong. At the trial, prosecutors expect the older boy, now 23, to testify to persistent and unwanted sexual contact over some six years, beginning his first day in Gajdusek's house when he was 14. They also intend to play for the jury a taped telephone conversation in which, according to court documents, Gajdusek confesses to the youth, apologizes, and begs him to lie if questioned.
Even so, if the jury convicts, a flood of character witnesses is bound to come forward at sentencing. Most compelling by far will be warm testimony in support of the defendant, now 73, from others of his more than three dozen adopted children, most of them sons.
Some of these boys -- or rather, men, now -- so admire the benefactor who brought them to America from remote Pacific islands that they named their own children after him or sent their kin to be raised in his home near Washington, D.C., and educated in the United States. Their devotion should make a powerful impression on the court.
Whatever happens at the trial, however, an extraordinary window into the mind of Carleton Gajdusek is already available. Over the course of a long career, Gajdusek wrote thousands of pages of journals. Some of his travel diaries were published in small editions by his longtime employer, the National Institutes of Health, and placed in the National Library of Medicine, where the public can read them. Along with another three journals at the Library of Congress, these amount to some 20 volumes, spanning 22 years.
Together, they are evidence of a remarkable life, of large talents deployed to ambitious ends -- some noble, some self-serving, some illicit -- in settings as exotic as any under the sun. They are also the story of a quintessential modern man, an intellectual choosing for himself an unconventional course, outside the framework of religion and in determined opposition to traditional morality.
The publicly available journals are a record of prodigious work. They cover the years 1954-76, picking up the thread of Gajdusek's career when he was 31 and breaking off when he was 53. By the time they begin, their author was already marked for stardom. The elder son of Slovakian immigrants in Yonkers, N.Y., he had early shown brilliance and a passion for science. An entomologist aunt encouraged him, and he earned a degree at the University of Rochester in 1943, then studied pediatrics at Harvard, with postdoctoral stints as a pediatrician with the occupation forces in Germany and as a researcher in virology at the California Institute of Technology under Linus Pauling and Max Delbruck.
During the Korean War, he worked for the Navy, which had sent him to medical school, and he played a leading role in research on a disease then ravaging both troops and civilians in the war zone, hemorrhagic fever. A few years later, his supervisor would recommend him for a job at the National Institutes of Health, calling him "one of the unique individuals in medicine who combines the intelligence of a near-genius with the adventurous spirit of a privateer."
Gajdusek got the job and remained associated with NIH for the rest of his career. By the time the journals end, he was chief of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at NIH -- the position he held until he was placed on leave this April, after his arrest.
The journal years, then, saw Gajdusek establish his scientific reputation. His most famous work had to do with disorders of the central nervous system -- starting in the late 1950s with kuru, the strange New Guinean disease that led to the discovery of a new class of infectious agent, the slow virus, for which he won his Nobel prize. But even as he was becoming an internationally recognized authority on ailments like Alzheimer's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a quite different professional purpose motivated the annual travels recounted in the journals.