The Kuru Mystery

  • June Goodfield


Even though most unexplored areas of the world opened up rapidly after the end of World War II, the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea remained remote and isolated. Few outsiders had ever penetrated the territory. Most who did found the experience unnerving, for they encountered “tribes”* of indigenous people living as in the Stone Age, with fearsome reputations as savage warriors and cannibals. Yet, one night in May 1957, a few members of one group, the Fore, were calmly watching a white man perform an autopsy on a young boy who had died shortly after midnight. By the time the body was laid on a rough table in a native hut, it was two o’clock in the morning. A fierce tropical storm was raging, so the crash of thunder, the hiss of rain, the shriek of wind, and the restless shadows thrown by a swinging lantern provided a macabre counterpoint to the cuts into the corpse. Using just a simple carving knife and a saw, and helped by a local dokta boi (native medical assistant), the stranger carefully slit into the scalp and then into the skull. With bare hands he lifted the brain from its bony shelter and sliced it into thin sections — not an easy task, the brain still being soft. Samples of other tissues were placed in bottles of formaldehyde and saline, already prepared for shipment. Such was the tension that the doctor worried: perhaps he had wrongly labeled abdominal wall, or lung, or spleen.


Senile Dementia Swiss Cheese Patrol Officer Prussic Acid Walter Reed Army Medical 
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© June Goodfield 1985

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  • June Goodfield

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