The fall of a family man

As governments crack down on the sexual tourism of paedophiles, a Nobel prize-winning scientist who "adopted" boys from Pacific islands is to stand trial on charges of sexual abuse. But is he the victim of a witchhunt?

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek is one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, the man who made possible giant leaps in the understanding of illnesses such as Aids and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the so-called human form of mad cow disease. He was hailed as a philanthropist of boundless generosity who "adopted" more than 50 children, mainly boys, from impoverished Pacific islands, caring for them in his own homes in the United States and paying for their education.

Now the illustrious career of Dr Gajdusek, 72, a Nobel Laureate, is in tatters, forever tarnished by allegations of child abuse and perverted sexual practice. And if found guilty in October, he will have been largely damned by his own pen.

It was the contents of Gajdusek's journals that prompted a tip-off to a Senate investigator and led to an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), resulting in his arrest in April and imprisonment in Frederick County Jail in Maryland. His scientific and anthropological records of more than 30 years took on a more sinister appearance after the FBI traced - the young man did not come forward of his own accord - one of Gajdusek's adoptees, who alleged that he had been sexually abused during the four years he was a member of the old man's "family".

To the State Attorney, Scott Rolle, the detailed entries were nothing but the voyeuristic musings of a potential paedophile. "It was something that he was obviously flirting with," Mr Rolle said last week.

The story of Daniel Gajdusek, the brilliant son of poor East European immigrants to the United States who was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, is more than the rags-to-riches rise and fall from grace of an eminence grise. His supporters - and there are many, including leading scientists and the children he brought up as his own, some of whom hold high-ranking government and diplomatic positions in their own countries - say he is the victim of the preoccupation with child abuse that has led to notorious scandals and miscarriages of justice such as Cleveland and the Orkney Isles cases here and Wenatchee in the US.

Others say Gajdusek is nothing more than a sex tourist who used his status as world-renowned scientist as a cover for his visits to exotic locations to procure children for his own pleasure. Then there are those of a more liberal persuasion who believe that our own hang-ups about sex should not be allowed to distort the very different cultural attitudes to sex displayed in other countries.

While they would not condone the forced sexual exploitation of young children common in Thailand and the Philippines that draws paedophiles worldwide - and is now the target of a crackdown by the British government - they would argue for greater understanding of races for whom sex is a casual, joyous, playful expression of feeling between adults and children as observed by Gajdusek. For example, on 10 September 1961, while on Koror Island in the Pacific Ocean, he wrote: "I would, at this moment, have every youth sleep with his sister, get seduced by his older brother and male teacher, practise with his male and female cousins, aunts, uncles and teacher and maid - anything! - only to know sex as fun and frivolity, as rhythm and passionate play - from an early age - from the very onset of puberty."

There will be some who cannot read those words without anger and revulsion, seeing it as an admission of Gajdusek's paedophilia. But what Gajdusek observed among some tribes on islands in the West Pacific and in remote villages of New Guinea has not been disputed by other authorities, nor by the children who once lived in the communities but who were handed their own slice of the American dream by Gajdusek and, with the consent of their parents, were transported thousands of miles to swap their ragged clothes and garlands for blue jeans and baseball caps. Should Gajdusek be condemned, then, for his obvious enjoyment and pleasure in this lifestyle which was so far removed from the society in which he grew up?

Through his lawyer, Mark Hulkower in Washington DC, Gajdusek vehemently denies the allegations, and dismisses the concern over his journals, published in accordance with his position as head of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "The journals add nothing to the case," Mr Hulkower has said. "They are ... reports of what Dr Gajdusek observed in foreign cultures, and contain no evidence of any inappropriate behaviour on his part."

Certainly the journals are ambiguous; there is no indication that Dr Gajdusek had sex with a minor, although he is open about the fact that he slept in the same bed as young boys, and that he was offered children as sexual playmates, often by their parents. He was particularly interested in the Anga tribe in New Guinea, whose young boys achieve manhood through sex with older village men. It is a cultural practice that has been reported throughout the remoter areas of the Pacific and which decrees that boys must ingest semen to make the transition to adulthood.

It was the FBI's questioning of some of Gajdusek's children that provided them with their case, rather than the journals; a 23-year-old student still being sponsored through college by Gajdusek, said that as a teenager he had suffered sexual assaults, including oral sex, in the years he lived in Gajdusek's house after arriving from the Micronesian island of Pohnpei at the age of 15.

Another youth, a minor, was placed in care after he too claimed sexual impropriety following questioning. Dr Gajdusek was arrested and spent the night in jail before being released on $350,000 bail. He is forbidden from travelling outside the state and has not commented in any detail on the allegations, other than to tell the Washington Post that he was as much a paedophile "as Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa, who also are unmarried and love children".

His love of children, innocent or profane in origin, is not in doubt. Their warm and affectionate response to him, observed by colleagues and maintained over the years by the majority of those he cared for, may be explained by the fact that Gajdusek, like many brilliant men, never quite left childhood behind himself. Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, an Australian scientist and Nobel laureate whom Gajdusek studied under in the 1940s and 1950s, has described him thus: "My own summing up was that he had an intelligence quotient up in the 180s and the emotional immaturity of a 15-year-old. He is completely self-centred, thick-skinned and inconsiderate, but equally won't let danger, physical difficulty or other people's feelings interfere in the least with what he wants to do. He apparently has no interest in women but an almost obsessional interest in children, none whatever in clothes and cleanliness; and he can live cheerfully in a slum or a grass hut."

Daniel Gajdusek was born in Yonkers, New York in 1923. His interest in science and his prodigious intellectual abilities were apparent from early childhood, and he swept the board at high school, winning every scholarship open to him. He completed his medical studies at Harvard Medical School early, and specialised in paediatrics.

But it was research on the wilder frontiers of medical science that really attracted him, luring him to places like New Guinea. There he learned about Kuru, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, later dubbed "the laughing death", which turned the brain to sponge - uncomfortably familiar to us now but largely unknown in humans at that time - and which had reached epidemic proportions among people in villages deep in the island's interior. What followed was a flurry of activity in which Gajdusek and his fellow researchers endured extreme conditions to complete their research, carrying out post-mortems to remove brains in stone-age conditions.

In 1957, the New England Journal of Medicine published a description of this new illness by Gajdusek and his team. A British researcher called William Hadlow read the paper and spotted a link between this and scrapie, a well-documented disease of sheep that also turned brains to sponge and which scientists were convinced was caused by a virus. Gajdusek took up the challenge, and by the middle of the 1960s he had shown through animal experiments that Kuru was transmittible using liquefied brain samples from New Guinea natives.

The natives, who had a tradition of cannibalism, were known to remove, cook and eat the brains of their dead relatives as a sign of respect. Gajdusek showed that "slow virus" infections in humans were possible. These are infections characterised by a healthy symptomatic phase that can last for decades before the disease manifests itself. He also discovered a new group of "viruses" which were pieces of genetically active nucleic acid bound to fragments of plasma membrane. Gajdusek's Nobel citation said that his research represented an "extraordinarily fundamental advance in human neurology and in mammalian biology and microbiology".

It certainly provided the launch-pad for research into this field, now one of the most high profile areas of medical science, with the emergence of Aids and more recently, the bovine and human forms of "mad cow disease". (BSE, CJD, and other spongiform diseases of the brain are now thought to be caused not by viruses, but by infectious agents known as prions, though this does not detract from Gajdusek's findings.)

Following his academic success, and the international acclaim that ensued, Dr Gajdusek continued with his research into Kuru and his extensive travelling. At the same time he was spending vast sums on the upkeep and education of his growing adopted "family" back in America, a group of boys, and latterly a few girls, from New Guinea and Micronesia.

Reports in American newspapers say Gajdusek brought the first child over some time in the mid-1960s, and that their numbers grew rapidly. He did not adopt them officially and the children entered the United States on study visas, which require little more than a sponsor who agrees to cover all costs.

Those of Gajdusek's family who have spoken of their life with him to the Washington Post tell of a noisy, boisterous, madcap household where they mixed with the great and good of American science, including Linus Pauling and the anthropologist Margaret Mead. They went to school, did their homework, played, went on dates, got into trouble, and were reprimanded by their "father", who was described as strict but caring. He took them to church on Sundays in deference to the wishes of their Catholic families. When he was awarded his Nobel Prize, several of them accompanied him on the stage to receive it, and he listed many of them as his family by name in his resume. The over-riding emotion towards Daniel Gajdusek appears to be one of gratitude for providing them with so many opportunities, and the suggestions of sexual abuse have been rejected outright by all those who could be traced, apart from the two young men mentioned earlier.

But a question mark remains over Gajdusek's intentions. He was the subject of an investigation into sexual abuse in the mid-1980s by local police, but no charges were ever brought. Larry Foust, of the FBI in Baltimore, said last week that the agency first became interested in him after an inquiry into child pornography on the Internet in the late 1980s. In October, the Maryland Circuit Court will decide if he is an innocent, well-meaning eccentric whose old age and lifetime achievements have been destroyed by witchhunting authorities, or a paedophile masquerading as a dedicated scientist. A more pertinent question, which the court will not address, is this: how could the US Immigration authorities and social services permit so many young, foreign children to enter the country, largely unchecked, for so many years?

EXCERPTS FROM THE 1969 JOURNAL OF DR GAJDUSEK'S TRIP TO NEW GUINEA, PUBLISHED IN 1971:

3 November, Wabiri Haus Kiap: "The boys are interested in semen and on being friendly, holding hands with them or sitting intimately beside them, they reach for one's genitals...They are trained to masturbate and fellate the adult males..."

5 November, Sedado Village:

"'Tidua' is the term used as the boys present the young boys to the police, [blank] and myself as sexual partners ... they are not at all ashamed and quite openly solicit among the boys and men. The use of the tongue protruded from the mouth somewhat curled to indicate fellatio is a gesture they make rather publicly, and it is new to me."

9 November, Nomad River Patrol Post: "Whenever I respond to the overtures of one of the young boys by letting them cling to me, by hugging them or walking with them hand in hand, their adult relatives, often their fathers, knowlingly smile and without ambiguity indicate that I should let the boys play sexually with me, and the suggestion is made only slightly more seriously and with but a bit more levity than would accompany a suggestion that one accept a gift of food."

25 December: "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."

26 December, Be'a: Slept well with Mbira, Awomu, Sengo, and Mbondo, and arose to a round of horseplay with them...

Western Caroline Islands:

10 September, 1961, Koror Island: "How much there is to gain if the fun and joy of childish play can be left uninhibited in adult life, without semantic twists into categories of bawdiness, perversion, lewdness, sensuality, eroticism, unnaturalness, masochism and sadism."

Entry in one of Gajdusek's New Guinea journals, date not known: "Papi is the most interesting lad of the group, at the moment. He is bright, probably about 13 or 14 years old...There is something strangely seductive about him."

Interview Gajduek gave to Omni, an American science magazine, in 1986: "Few normal, well-brought-up, moral children in such Micronesian and Polynesian islands aren't knowledgeable in massaging adults into orgasm... A child who was unfamiliar with sexual practice by early puberty would be antisocial. These people believe that sex is a part of normal life at all ages. That is what made so many sailors and beachcombers, including Herman Melville and missionaries, stay so long on many Pacific islands." [Gajdusek was a great admirer of Melville.]

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