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Four Ways To Tell The Kuru Story


for Members

Four Ways To Tell The Kuru Story

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wenner-Gren Foundation

Presented By

Presented by the Anthropology Section


The epidemic of kuru, a fatal disease that has long burdened the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, appears to be approaching an end. Since its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the number of kuru deaths has declined, and only two deaths have occurred in the past five years. The last recorded death was in 2005 in a patient with an incubation period of 50 years or more. The sense of relief experienced by those who have been close to the epidemic is now accompanied by the urge to comprehend the significance of those 50 years.

I tell here the kuru story from four points of view in order to document the way in which four parties gave different accounts of this important disease in the history of medicine: medical investigators, anthropologists, the Fore, and the popular media. The media has had a striking impact on the way the kuru story has been received and understood in popular culture. As I hope to show, this error-filled and often lurid public framing of the epidemic is the most fantastic story of all. I end with some speculations about the production and dissemination of authoritative knowledge.


Shirley Lindenbaum, PhD

City University of New York

Shirley Lindenbaum is a cultural anthropologist whose areas of research include the study of "kuru" in Papua New Guinea, cholera in Bangladesh, and AIDS in the United States. She has been a member of the Social Science Research Council committee to identify the critical issues and needs of sexuality research and training in the United States, and with an Office of AI DS Research Working Group identifying high priority topics in international HIV prevention research as well as in the United States. Her current writing projects include changing forms of historical consciousness based on narratives collected in New Guinea from the 1960s to the present.