Gregory Corso’s poem “Zizi’s Lament” begins, “I am in love with the laughing sickness,” which goes to show that poets don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about. Laughing sickness, also known as kuru, was a hideous, invariably fatal neurological disease found in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea, transmitted by the consumption of infected human brain tissue. The Fore would eat their dead as a means of releasing the souls of the departed, but in the process, the disease was transmitted across generations. The pathogen in question was previously undiscovered and was ultimately given the name “prion” — a term we now associate with other diseases similar to kuru, like Mad Cow and other forms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The discovery of the prion has led to two Nobel Prizes.
You’ll notice I’m writing of kuru in the past tense, as that particular disease appears to have been virtually wiped out, largely through the work of a team of doctors, scientists, and the local people they trained to track and study the illness. It’s a fascinating story, and at The Global Mail, Jo Chandler chronicles the career of Dr. Michael Alpers, whose central role in the disease’s eradication reminds us that people in out-of-the-way places can do wonderful things.