Guess what's coming for dinner

DEADLY FEASTS by Richard Rhodes Simon & Schuster pounds 14.99

Emily Green
Saturday 17 May 1997 23:02 BST

Prizes do funny things to people. In 1988, Richard Rhodes received a Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb. (He deserved it: it was a wonderful book.) The Czech-American paediatrician, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, was a joint recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize for demonstrating that kuru, a fatal neurodegenerative disease among the Fore Tribe of Papua New Guinea, was spread by ritual cannibalism. (His manic theatricality managed to light up an esoteric, formerly obscure corner of research.) This much-hyped new book combines Rhodes and Gajdusek in a publishing twofer: two prize-winners for the price of one. The author is Rhodes, the expert witness Gajdusek, the subject the mystifying school of diseases related to CJD, BSE and kuru.

All this gravitas is introduced in tones better suited to Hollywood trailers: "Nothing you are about to read is fiction. No names have been changed. However harrowing, every word is true." The reporting takes a decidedly fictional tone on page one, however, with a rather beautiful account of cannibalism in remote Papua New Guinea, written as if Rhodes had been there. (This is unlikely: the practice was abandoned in the Sixties.) The involuntary name changes start on page 211, where Stephen Churchill, Britain's first victim of new-variant CJD, is called Peter. Then there are the mistakes, too many to count. The assertion that CJD in Britain is grossly underreported is a particularly creative example. Rhodes clearly did not check this with the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh. Had he, he might have observed that one of the many steps in recording and accurately reporting CJD has been the whittling out of false positives.

He might also have credited an intriguing study on the age-specific incidence of "sporadic CJD" to its true source, the surveillance unit, rather than a freelance sheep scrapie specialist. This CJD data raises an important question: if conventional CJD is truly sporadic, why does it hit a certain age bracket? The unit asking such a question is unlikely to be suppressing disease numbers.

Roughly divided into quarters, Deadly Feasts is one part hagiography of Gajdusek, one part summation of research into spongey-brain diseases, one part rehash of the British BSE crisis and one part an impassioned warning about the dangers of what Rhodes calls "high tech cannibalism". This might range from the ghastly business of feeding cattle ruminant protein, or, more spookily, the threat of iatrogenic, or physician-borne, CJD. Among the British victims of iatrogenic CJD are 20 young people who received human growth hormone treatment before 1976. The hormone treatment was made with batch-processed pituitary glands harvested from cadavers, some of whom had died of dementia.

Rhodes reports this well, before positing a new potential route of infection: the transplant of pig organs into humans. He then delivers Dr David White, the book's most vivid witness, an enthusiastic peddler of pig parts and co-founder of the Cambridge company Imutran. Dr White reckons his is a growth industry. "The heart, the lungs - all those former smokers, the market is huge - the kidney. Possibly the intestine." The possibility that organs might be taken from pigs accidentally exposed to BSE-contaminated food worries Rhodes. While there are more immediate threats to the national health, it is Rhodes's passionate concern for our well-being that dignifies this mess of a book.

Other imperatives are less laudable. The rush to have it in American shops in March was such that the book was in print before galleys had time to come back from expert readers with corrections that Rhodes himself had solicited. The publication date coincided with the much-publicised trial and subsequent conviction of Gajdusek on child-molestation charges. Gajdusek, a bachelor, is the adoptive father of 54 children from Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. Last year, one of these brought charges against him. Rhodes takes it upon himself in the book to conduct a defence. The complainant is described as "one of the nearly 60 young people" whom Gajdusek had "impoverished himself to educate". We are told that "those who knew" the complainant "found his accusations hard to credit". This is the book's description of the time Gajdusek took seven boys to the 1976 Nobel Prize ceremony: "Gajdusek informed his hosts that the boys wouldn't need separate hotel rooms: they were used to sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags and could share his suite. Short of stature but strong, handsome and polite, they made an unforgettable impression."

Oddly, the worst damage done to Gajdusek in the book comes from Gajdusek himself, in the form of his latest (undated) theory that CJD, BSE and so on are the result of a protein crystallisation process, very like that imagined in Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. No mention is made of similar musings independently put forth by the English microbiologist, Stephen Dealler, who never promoted the idea as anything other than an intriguing, admittedly fanciful hypothesis.

The research clearly overwhelmed Rhodes, as it overwhelmed Dealler in his book, Lethal Legacy, and me when I attempted a smaller (and abortive) exercise for Granta. This is less Rhodes's failure than the measure of a monster of a subject, requiring knowledge of agriculture, cutting-edge protein chemistry, pathology, neurology, European trade and the worst food scare in British history. Given this, it is all too clear what may have attracted Rhodes to Kurt Vonnegut plots, pig parts and a clumsy defence for an adventuring paediatrician.

One wishes it hadn't, or that Rhodes will someday dust himself down and return to the subject. There is still a great book to be written.

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