The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen
By Warwick Anderson
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008
Bought a used copy.
Those of you who have visited this blog in the past may know I have a love of anthropology and a love of science. This intriguing book fills the bill on both counts.
It is the story of the Fore, a group of people who live in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the mysterious disease that affected their villages. When white people first met the Fore in the 1930’s and 40’s, they found them suffering from an illness that caused muscle weakness, tremors, lack of coordination and eventually death. They also discovered that the Fore eat their dead as a sign of respect and that they believe in sorcery. It was mainly women and children who were ill and the Fore attributed this frightening, wasting sickness to very evil magic. They call it Kuru.
Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and science historian, through years of research, travel and interviews with Fore people, medical researchers, anthropologists and others, brings together all the different elements of the study of Kuru, that includes cultural anthropology, virology, epidemiology, colonial history and leads to the science of medical anthropology and to questions of medical ethics. He follows the research of many anthropologists and epidemiologists and tells of their discovery that, by eating their loved ones after death, the Fore where actually spreading the disease. All this research, and the many scientists taking part in the study, lead to the idea of a “slow virus” and eventually to the discovery of Prions, the same biological cells that spread “Mad Cow'” disease.
This book is also a record of the Fore, a previously isolated people, and how they made contact and adapted to the world by engaging with scientists, researchers and administrators. How they struggled to make the meeting of the modern and the “primitive” something other than the usual colonial process. How, once they realized that their blood and flesh was of value to modern science, they began to demand to be part of the undertaking.
We might also learn from the Fore how to understand the social dynamics of global science. Kuru research occurred in the shadow of World War II and on the edges of the cold war. It took place a scientific institutions flourished in advanced settler societies such as the United States and Australia, extending their reach into “primitive” colonies like Papua and New Guinea. The traffic in specimens, equipment, reagents, and texts linked laboratories in large metropolitan centers with bush huts where autopsies were performed and tissues prepared. Scientists came and went between these diverse sites, becoming cosmopolitan as they made their careers. Parts of the Fore circulated, too, turned into globally available specimens. Fore thus became medicalized even as they were first colonized. They found themselves caught up at this striking conjunction, though never completely subsumed in it. Rehearsed at a multitude of local sites, yet performed as though on a global stage, kuru research dramatized claims and contest over territory, bodies, and persons. It shows us hoe science travels in the modern world and what it does when it arrives…
Anderson gives everyone, scientists, researchers and Fore alike, a say in the story. He also exposes the moral and ethic dilemmas involved with this type of medical research. Who owns the findings? The researchers, the biomedical companies or the people who donated their blood and bodies to the study of this disease? It is a very important question as we delve deeper into the human body and its genetic makeup.