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September/October 2019

Learning beyond chemistry

Fifty years ago, American medical researchers Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and Clarence J. Gibbs, Jr published ‘Infection as the etiology of spongiform encephalopathy (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease)’ in Science ( science.165.3897.1023). Their paper described inoculation and disease transmission between chimpanzees of fatal spongiform encephalopathy from suspensions of brain, and retransmission of the disease to another chimp with an inoculum stored for more than two years. It was part of a body of work that would earn Gajdusek and geneticist Barum S. Blumberg the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for their discoveries concerning ‘new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases’.

In the 1950s, Gajdusek worked as a visiting investigator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, and it was here that he began the work that led to his Nobel Prize. He realised that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and others like it had their origins in an as-yet unidentified infectious agent.

Twenty-one years after Gajdusek’s laureate honour, American biochemist and neurologist Stanley B. Prusiner received the Nobel Prize in the same discipline for his discovery of that infectious agent: ‘prions – a new biological principle of infection’. His work followed on from that of Gajdusek, after one of Prusiner’s patients died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease-induced dementia.

Prusiner’s work has sparked the interest of RACI fellow Alan J. Jones, who wrote about his self-education on prions in the July/August issue (p. 32) and reviewed a recent book edited by Prusiner (p. 34). Alan’s piece in that issue is the first in our ‘Beyond chemistry’ series, where contributors write on a subject they’ve been learning about outside their main area of expertise. In his work before retirement, Alan used NMR spectroscopy to probe the structure of scientifically significant hydrocarbons and the ‘molecules of life’.

Alan, who says ‘I have educated myself about prions mainly through reading and watching video lectures’, intends to keep up with the prion literature, and would like to discuss his interest with like-minded people (

I have been doing some extracurricular exploration of my own, and, like Alan’s, my interest stems from a ‘fundamental curiosity’ that is distinctly scientific. A recent learning of mine is on the topic of ‘Women making history: ten objects, many stories’, a course delivered by Harvard University via the online open course organisation edX. I’ve long been interested in the curation of objects or ideas to tell a bigger story, and this course fits the bill. It begins with an online guided visual exploration of an unknown object. The lecturer asks participants to ‘be curious’. On the ‘tour’, we begin to get a sense of the object’s size, weight, age, construction, texture and parts.

The object, we later learn, is a camera that was owned by the first published female photojournalist in the US, Jessie Tarbox Beals, which is now housed at Harvard’s Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

Please contact me if you’d like to share your story of learning beyond chemistry.

Sally Woollett (

Sally’s resource list

edX, Women making history: ten objects, many stories,

New Philosopher,

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Schlesinger Library,

Trustees of the British Museum, A history of the world in 100 objects from the British Museum, National Museum of Australia Press, 2016

Wikipedia, Jessie Tarbox Beals,

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