A laureate accused

November 15, 1996

A 72-year-old Nobel laureate has been accused of sexually molesting a minor, one of 54 boys he looked after from Papua New Guinea. A journal he kept during his time in the tropics might lend some weight to the charges. Or is it simply a disinterested account of ritualised homosexuality prevalent among young Papuan males that has been taken out of context? Tim Cornwell reports.

Friends describe Nobel laureate Carleton Gajdusek (left) working feverishly in his Maryland home to catalogue "literally tons" of journals, photographs and cinema film from 50 years of research in some of the remotest places in the world. The man whose work on slow virus infections opened scientific windows on Alzheimer's disease and Aids is "living at his house, and working like crazy, which is what he has always done," says his friend and longtime fellow researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Paul Brown.

For a university library or museum, Dr Gajdusek's records promise an anthropological and medical treasure trove. They document a period and places that have changed for ever - like the interior highlands of Papua New Guinea, barely touched by western civilisation when he wandered them in the 1950s, taking blood, snapping pictures and scribbling notes.

But a shadow hangs over the life's work of the 72-year-old academic. Gajdusek was arrested in April on charges of having sexually abused a minor, one of several dozen children he helped bring to the United States during his unconventional career. Surrounded by cameras, he was handcuffed and imprisoned overnight in a county jail. Prosecutors in court documents cite a phone call in which he allegedly confessed to being a paedophile.

The strangest element of all in the case may be Gajdusek's published scientific journals. In between records of blood samples taken and accounts of tribal dialects, they contain detailed accounts of the homosexual proclivities of young native boys who were traditionally expected to satisfy the desires of older males. Mostly dating from the 1960s, the journals are in a strict sense irrelevant to the court case, where Gajdusek has pleaded not guilty. But they helped launch a major investigation into the lives of the children. The works are a mixture of scientific disinterestedness and personal fascination, as they document the ritual homosexuality known to be practised in parts of New Guinea. The style at times is almost celebratory in its description of sexual freedom in exotic climes.

Gajdusek never describes his own participation in any sexual act, nor does he give any indication of wanting to participate. But the reader cannot help wonder, without ever quite knowing, about the sexual appetites of the writer himself. "I slept well again, like a bitch with her half-dozen pups lying and crawling over her, and I awoke to the dramatic skies of a Papuan morning," begins his entry for Christmas Day, 1969, describing a night shared with a group of young assistants.

Seven years earlier, only days after diary entries in which he described the night-time orgasms of his youthful companions, and how boys of six to 12 are the "preferred fellators" of their older fellows, he writes of having enjoyed a long period of "perfect sensuality and satisfied passion".

It is these amateur anthropological accounts which have disturbed academics in this country, some of whom fear that their own discipline may be brought into disrepute by Gajdusek's writings. Jonathan Benthall, director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, where one particularly contentious journal is kept, (recording Gajdusek's time in New Guinea between 1961 and 1962 when he was studying child growth and disease patterns in primitive cultures), has instructed the library not to allow the work out on loan. "He is not at all typical of anthropologists. Nearly every cultural anthropologist I know would regard this kind of observation and writing about it in this way as completely aberrant, completely wrong. It is not at all typical of how cultural anthropologists go about their work. And at the end of the day he is not a cultural anthropologist, he is a medical scientist," said Benthall.

Marilyn Strathern, an expert on Melanesia and professor of anthropology at Cambridge University, said news of the journals had circulated among anthropologists where it was known that Gajdusek had a "mania for documentation, along with unusual behaviour in accepting responsibility for so many young children".

"This is extreme behaviour in two directions," said Professor Strathern. It was extreme generosity but it was also extreme in the detailed accounts of sexual behaviour which he made available publicly, particularly when his own research work was in a different area - in the field of epidemiology.

Strathern said that Gajdusek's accounts of ritualised homosexuality, even among young boys, had been chronicled in other anthropological writings on the parts of Papua New Guinea he visited. One thesis is that it was part of a growing up process, that boys were fed with semen by senior men as their mothers had fed them with milk.

"It would be hard to be a witness to this without being troubled or disturbed or aroused in some way," said Strathern, whose own work has been in parts of the central highlands of Papua New Guinea where homosexuality is virtually unknown. "The mere act of describing this in such detail is to some extent unusual," she added.

In America, where the journals have caused more than academic disquiet Gajdusek's defenders complain that selected excerpts have been taken out of context and distorted - a "patchwork quilt" with "a sentence here, a sentence there", said Dr Brown. In a 50-year friendship with Gajdusek, he said, he had never seen anything amiss, and his confidence was such that he let his own adopted son from the Pacific islands of Micronesia live in his friend's house for a year.

From a sexually permissive and experimental era, the 1960s, the journals are being examined with a microscope in the 1990s, a period with an almost obsessive sensitivity to child abuse. "All the public see is sex charges and they run for that like a Salem witchhunt, and it's totally destructive," said his brother, Robin Gajdusek, a retired professor of literature from San Francisco State University, who has described the charges as obscene.

By all accounts, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was early on singled out for a stellar but unconventional career. A brilliant student, after specialising in paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, he rapidly developed an appetite for travel to the remote places of the world, pursuing research into viral medicine and diseases, that would stay with him for life. He found his way to Papua New Guinea in the late 1950s, and began investigating a fatal disease called kuru, familiarly known as "laughing death", which turned the brain to sponge. After announcing its existence to the world in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1957, Gajdusek later set out to prove that kuru was a slow-acting virus infection. Sufferers often remained healthy for years before symptoms became evident. Twenty years later, his work would earn the Nobel prize. Its relevance to contemporary killers like Aids and BSE is obvious.

But it was at the same time that he began to record his encounters with young, sexually active boys, straying outside his own medical field into amateur anthropology. And by the early 1960s, he had begun looking after children. They lived with him - and often without him, as he travelled - at his homes in Maryland. He paid for their care and education. Several are scholars in the US, others are successful in their home countries.

The trial of Gajdusek on two counts of child abuse and "perverted sexual practice" with a former charge has been delayed until early next year. He has been placed on administrative leave at NIH, where he has worked in senior positions since 1958, publishing over 1,000 academic papers.

As long ago as 1986, police probed allegations of sex abuse. But it is a 23-year-old college student, introduced to Gajdusek at the age of 14 on the island of Pohnpei, who has made the only detailed allegations against him. He told FBI agents, and later the Washington Post newspaper, that Dr Gajdusek began abusing him as a teenager soon after he arrived in the country.

As the allegations were made, almost all the adult members of Gajdusek's extended "family" have come forward to defend him as "father" and friend, a man who changed their lives and introduced them in his home to some of the most brilliant minds of the era. None has corroborated the charges of abuse, and friends insist he is an altruistic man snared by appearances rather than fact.

An FBI affidavit, however, reports that Dr Gajdusek in a secretly recorded phone call admitted to abusing the student as a teenager, and apologises for it.

When the student asked if Gajdusek knew what a paedophile was, he allegedly answered "I am one".

Extracts from one of Carleton Gajdusek's New Guinea journals October 2, 1961 to August 4, 1962

The young boys are as homosexual as ever, and their homosexuality lies not very far hidden. On the slightest chance of being alone with one, or with the slightest encouragement to their fondling, searching in my pockets, etc, they reach for my penis and immediately try to fondle it. It is also evident that there is a great deal of homosexual jest, which I am now able to follow in part, and that every adult male expects one to want and have a young boy for a sexual mate. The fact fellatio is known to all the young boys from seven or eight years up, and even to some of only five or six years (and is obviously practised from their mouth and finger-sucking gestures in half-jest, half seriousness, and from the remarks of my boys and the Kuks) is the strangest thing in the sexual complex of the region. Thus, although homosexuality is not uncommon anywhere in New Guinea, especially in boy-houses and among labour lines with their pet youngsters hanging on, this universal fellatio is perhaps unique to this region. Pedarastic fellation I have not heard of elsewhere as the cultural pattern. The young boys do not hesitate, as a mark of affection, to indicate that they would like to suck one's penis, and in private they expect that this favour will be instantly accepted as a sign of their friendship. What is most interesting is their obvious desire for manual penile manipulation and fellatio, which is in these young boys established as a drive rather than something the older boys and men force upon them. Thus, the culture trains them early for this role and the men's houses are the obvious place. Tonight as I surprised the darkened Tchetchai men's house from the outside I could hear giggling and obvious sounds and jest of dalliance.

When I suddenly entered, the men and older boys were "sleeping" with their youths in the radial spoke-like fashion of the Kuk "kwal-anga", with a dim, almost dead, fire in the centre. My arrival caused quick reorganisation of positions and partners. There is obviously a good deal of jest and shaming associated with this sexuality when it is not carried out "just right". Modesty and shame are evident in any public reference to it. What "just right" is involves knowledge of the "style" of the relationships.

June 9, 1962

The seven boys of my party and I slept well in a modern-style house made by several men of Pinji. The house was warm and comfortable and the smoke from our fire rose well and left without smoking up the house. Manieba, soon after the fire died, was vigorously at work achieving an orgasm with Kamintereba, his fellator, and later in the night I was awakened by his vigorous attempts to have a second orgasm with Nabutchumeragon, his fellator. It is evident from the gestures, talk and fellatio activity that this pattern is as frequent among the Aurugosa Dumbulias and Wantekias as it is at Usurumpia, Amdei, Iambananye and Bulakia. The Niri boy of 14 was anxious to have sodomy relations with anyone he could along our trip here and he was the first of these Kuks I have found with such propensity. For in the youngsters of the southwestern section of Kuks fellatio is so ingrained and habitual an action that sodomy receives little or no mention in jest, talk or gesture, or, as far as I can learn, overt action. The boys of six or 12 are the preferred fellators and all seem anxious to fulfil this role.

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