Academic journal article Oceania

The Promised Medicine: Fore Reflections on the Scientific Investigation of Kuru

Academic journal article Oceania

The Promised Medicine: Fore Reflections on the Scientific Investigation of Kuru

Article excerpt


   I was still very young when I saw [kuru] and even
   after we treated it there was no help. Everyone
   was falling apart. [Kuru victims] were aware that
   there was no cure and that they would die. It wasn't
   just one person that this sickness came to--there
   were about three in a house line and then after
   they died there would be another three. It was ...
   ongoing ... there were many deaths. Once a [person]
   ... was affected by kuru [their] family would think
   that the clan had poisoned [them] and they would
   start ... shooting at each other and that made it
   worse. It was chaos! (Tauribi).

The above recollection of the impact of kuru on the South Fore people of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea presents a grim picture of a socio-medical crisis. This is significant for two reasons. First, it was formed at a time when the epidemic was nearing its peak. By this time the Fore, who had initially regarded the condition as benign, recognised kuru (a Fore word which means shaking or fear) as a uniformly progressive, fatal illness caused by sorcery (Lindenbaum 1979: 2001). Second, it draws attention to the crisis that accompanied the epidemic, and hints at the manner in which the Fore currently view its impact. In this way, Tauribi's comment sets the scene for this paper, which explores dominant themes from the oral narratives of five South Fore men. These, like Tauribi, survived the epidemic and assisted in its investigation by European scientists. While much has been published on the scientific results of the kuru investigation and associated inquiries, little has been written on the Fore perspective. (1) This paper attempts to redress this imbalance.

Lindenbaum (2001: 364) argues that, in precipitating a crisis, epidemics evoke social responses that reflect the values and world views of people under threat. Citing Rosenberg (1992), she points out that as social phenomena epidemics take on a particular 'dramaturgic form' (Lindenbaum 2001:367):

   They start at a moment in time, proceed on a
   stage limited in space and duration, following
   a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension,
   move to a crisis of individual and collective
   character, then drift toward closure.

The form of an oral narrative is shaped by the context and performance of the storytelling, and the meaning of events recalled (see Beasley 2006; Friedman 2000; Polier 1998). The temporal and spatial content of the Fore narratives reflect the dramaturgic form of epidemics, which is used as the framework for this discussion. The drama begins with the narrators' childhood memories of the crisis at the height of the epidemic, ascends during their adolescence and adulthood to a peak of optimism associated with the arrival of the scientists and the search for a cure, before sliding into disillusionment over the lack of a cure and unrealised aspirations for a better life.


At the time of Tauribi's evidence, the plight of the Fore remained largely unknown to the outside world. The rugged, mountainous area inhabited by these people lies approximately 80 kilometres to the southeast of Goroka, capital of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. From the 1930s, goldminers, missionaries, colonial administrators and planters took up residence in this area. Traditionally subsistence agriculturalists reliant on stone implements, the Fore were gradually exposed to their new commodities and technology. (2) The Fore region came under the Australian administration from 1947. By the early 1950s, police and patrol posts had been established and regular patrols were conducted in an attempt to establish law and order in a region known for its inter-tribal warfare (Nelson 1996). Following close behind were the first missionary teachers, who established several posts in the district. However, much of the Fore territory (particularly in the south) remained largely beyond European influence until the late 1950s, when news of an exotic new disease attracted international media and scientific attention. …

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