The Possession of Kuru: Medical Science and Biocolonial Exchange [chapter]

Warwick Anderson
Naturally, everyone would like to get their hands on kuru brains," wrote D. Carleton Gajdusek in 1957. 1 A young medical scientist, Gajdusek was writing from his bush laboratory in the eastern highlands of New Guinea, and he had in mind the competition among pathologists in Melbourne, Australia, and Bethesda, Maryland, for the valuable specimens. But he may also have considered his own recent transactions with the Fore people, afflicted with what he thought was the disease of kuru, and on whose
more » ... hospitality he was then relying. Blood and brains, the germinal objects of his field research, were richly entangled in local community relations and global scientific networks; they could convey one meaning to the Fore, another to Gajdusek, and yet another to laboratory workers in Australia and the United States. These objects could be exchanged as gifts or commodities in different circumstances, or on the same occasion the different parties might confuse gift exchange with commodity transaction. At times, the scientist would try to obtain goods through barter, or even to appropriate them; and, then again, he might find that what he wanted was out of circulation altogether. In the field, Gajdusek had become enmeshed in a complex and fragile web of relationships with the Fore in order to acquire specimens that, through further exchanges with senior colleagues, might yet make his scientific reputation. In this essay I will examine a variety of transactions between the Fore and the anthropological and medical fieldworkers who first ventured into the highlands in the 1950s. My concern here is not with the "kuru story" itself, nor with an account of who got it right, for the rapid accumulation of kuru knowledge has already been well charted. 2 My question is not what did people learn about the Fore and kuru, but how did they learn it-and how, indeed, did they make such knowledge both valuable and identifiably their own. Accordingly, the true meaning of kuru-whether disease, sorcery, adjustment disorder, a slow virus, a people, or a territory-should ultimately remain as ambiguous or opaque to the readers of this essay as it was to everyone involved in kuru transactions. How does anyone make sense of a phenomenon as protean as kuru? How does one gain credit for knowing at the same time as one circulates that knowledge? How might Gajdusek, or anyone else, come to possess kuru? I hope to make a place in this essay for exchanges between the history of science, economic anthropology, and post-colonial studies. 3 In studying the many exchange regimes that developed around kuru-the transactions between the Fore and other local groups, between 1 D. Carleton Gajdusek to J. E. Smadel, 25 August 1957, in Farquhar and Gajdusek (1981, 121). 2 For recent accounts of the investigations of kuru, see Nelson (1996); Rhodes (1997) . 3 This work is thus part of a more general effort to make connections between anthropology and science studies. Previously, this effort has been manifest in the introduction of ethnographic methods, as in the pioneering work by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar ([1979] 1986); or it has found expression in the increasing use of cultural analysis and a focus on identity formation. For recent surveys,
doi:10.34663/9783945561430-06 fatcat:wj6dthbvmbdhjk5m64nkybaa2a