Carleton Gajdusek, Doug Strain and Richard T. Jones

Before settling completely in to 2009, we would like to take a moment to note the 2008 passing of three men who had, in various ways, inhabited the Pauling orbit.

D. Carleton Gajdusek died on December 12, 2008 at the age of 85.  Gajdusek was a former graduate student of Pauling’s who received international acclaim – culminating in the 1976 Nobel Prize for Medicine –  for his research on a disease called kuru.

Gajdusek built his scientific reputation studying indigenous peoples throughout Asia and South America, in all cases seeking out unique diseases specific to small and isolated populations.  Kuru was a fatal disease that plagued the Fore tribe of New Guinea.  Sufferers of kuru experienced declines into madness before death, and their autopsies revealed that the disease had ravished their brains, shooting it through with holes.  Gajdusek’s breakthrough, and its resulting impact, is summarized nicely by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. in his excellent New York Times obituary of the Nobel laureate:

In 1957, Dr. Gajdusek…realized that the victims had all participated in “mortuary feasts” in the decades before the custom was suppressed in the 1940s by missionaries and the Australian police.

The Fore, who lived as they had in the Stone Age, cooked and ate the bodies of tribe members who had died, and smeared themselves with the brains as a sign of respect for the dead.

The disease confounded explanation because the mashed brains of the victims, injected into chimpanzees’ brains, produced no symptoms. All known disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites produced symptoms within days or weeks. But when the chimps developed kuru two years later, Dr. Gajdusek theorized that a slow-acting virus was at work, somehow not producing the expected immune reactions.

One of his assistants found “scrapie-affiliated particles” — fibrils resembling those in the brains of sheep with scrapie. But it was Stanley B. Prusiner who identified them as tangles of normal proteins that had misfolded and clumped, “teaching” other proteins to follow; he named them prions. They are now recognized as the cause of kuru, scrapie, human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. Dr. Prusiner won his own Nobel in medicine for that work in 1997.

McNeil’s obituary also describes Gajdusek as “difficult and eccentric,” in no small part because he was an admitted pedophile, convicted in 1997 of molesting one of the at least-fifty indigenous children that he adopted, raised and financially-supported over the course of his life.  Much more on this component of Gajdusek’s biography is spelled out by Thomas H. Maugh II in his Los Angeles Times obituary.

Pauling and Gajdusek were decades-long friends.  It is uncertain, though in our opinion unlikely, that Pauling was aware of Gajdusek’s personal proclivities.  On the contrary, the final communication from Pauling to Gajdusek that is contained in our files – dated December 28, 1993 –  indicates that Pauling hoped to appoint Gajdusek for five years as a staff member at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.  Likewise, the FBI’s investigation and subsequent arrest of Gajdusek did not take place until 1996, two years after Pauling’s death.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carleton Gadjusek, December 28, 1993.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carleton Gadjusek, December 28, 1993.

Douglas C. Strain passed away on November 15, 2008, at the age of 89.  A Caltech undergraduate who had occasion to take classes from Pauling, Strain went on to found Electro Scientific Industries, Inc., a pioneer of Oregon’s now-thriving technology sector.

Strain was raised in the Quaker tradition.  A conscientious objector during World War II, he was sympathetic to Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s perspective on issues of peace and civil liberties. (This older post of ours, titled “An Outspoken Man,” relies heavily on Strain’s recounting of Pauling’s response to the anti-Japanese hysteria that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.)

A success in business, Strain was also an accomplished philanthropist who generously supported education at a number of institutions in both Oregon and California.  Strain’s intersecting interests in Pauling and in education culminated in his support of the OSU Libraries Special Collections — our reading room is named in his honor.

Though their contacts were limited following Doug’s graduation from Caltech, Strain remained a keen observer of Linus Pauling’s life and career.  In a 1995 oral history interview, Strain offered these perceptive thoughts on Pauling’s talents and multi-facted persona.

He was always off on his own ideas.  He was not a team player.  He would not, I don’t think, work well in a scientific team.  He was really an original guy and you either went along with Pauling or you weren’t there, that sort of thing.  But he was very stimulating because he was so openly enthusiastic about his ideas and always tried to be very intellectually honest about what he believed.  I mean, a lot of experimentation, a lot of proof.  He expected everybody else to do the same.  He was a very tough taskmaster for his graduate students.  I know for a fact.

The Oregonian has published an obituary of Doug Strain and also covered his memorial service.

Richard T. Jones was an Oregon Health Sciences University biochemist who passed away on February 26, 2008, aged 78.  Jones was both a Caltech undergraduate as well as a graduate student of Pauling’s in the late-1950s and early-1960s, who contributed to Caltech’s sprawling program of hemoglobin research.  One important component of Jones’s hemoglobin work was his introduction to the group of a technique called “molecular fingerprinting,” which Pauling and a third colleague, Emile Zuckerkandl, used to develop their influential theory of the molecular evolutionary clock.

Pauling was frequently asked to provide recommendations of his students for various positions around the world, and he had no trouble in relaying brutally-honest opinions, some of them rather starkly negative.  It is clear, however, that Pauling was a fan of Jones’s work.

Letter of recommendation for Richard T. Jones, written by Linus Pauling, December 12, 1959.

Letter of recommendation for Richard T. Jones, written by Linus Pauling, December 12, 1959.

Following his tenure at Caltech, Jones went on to chair the biochemistry department at the University of Oregon before relocating to OHSU, where he worked for thirty years, including a short term as acting University President.  Interestingly, one of Jones’s primary research interests during his time in Oregon was the study of blood substitutes, to some degree echoing Pauling’s work on oxypolygelatin during World War II.

One month before his death, OHSU honored Jones by renaming its Basic Science Building in his honor.


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