General History prize goes to Professor Warwick Anderson

28 October 2009

A book about a deadly, mysterious virus that afflicted the Fore people in New Guinea's remote highlands, written by Professor Warwick Anderson, has taken out the major prize at the NSW Premier's History Awards.

Professor Anderson, from the University of Sydney's Department of History, won the prize for the book The Collectors of Lost Souls: turning Kuru scientists into whitemen, which tells the story of kuru, a disease which caused muscle weakness, uncontrollable tremors, then loss of all coordination and ultimately death.

At the centre of the story is the brilliant but troubled American doctor D. Carleton Gajdusek, who established that the Fore tradition of eating their loved ones after death was the means by which the disease carried from one person to another.

The judges of the $15,000 General History Prize described the work as "magisterial", a "gripping exploration, a medical mystery and a moral fable, in its way as ghoulish and shocking as anything we might find in Conrad - but true."

They praised the book " a work of exceptional research and remarkable storytelling. It will enthral anyone interested in the history of scientific research, anyone wanting to know more about PNG, our nearest neighbour, indeed, anyone who wants to explore a fine work of history that just happens to be a riveting read."

Last night Professor Anderson said: "I am delighted and surprised to get the award: surprised by the strength of the company this year, led by my partners in the Department of History at the University of Sydney."

He added: "I was aided by an extraordinary mysterious killer disease, first contact in the highlands of New Guinea in the 1950s and 1960s, a protagonist who could have stepped out of a tale by Melville or Conrad, sorcery accusations, cannibalism, two Nobel Prizes, infectious proteins, mad cow, and accusations of sexual molestation.

"So basically I had this fantastic story to tell and everyone said it was a story a writer has a chance to tell once in a lifetime if you are lucky.

"I felt a sense of responsibility to do it justice, to tell it right, and I take this award as evidence that I have done my duty."

University of Sydney PhD graduate, Dr Caroline Ford, was awarded the inaugural NSW Archival Research Fellowship. The fellowship will allow her to turn her PhD into a book exploring the history of Sydney's relationship with its ocean foreshores, from the 1820s to the 1920s.

The $15,000 award will give Dr Ford access to the archives in the State Records Authority of NSW. "This book will demonstrate for the first time that residents of Sydney did not always feel a connection to the coast, or deem public access to the coast to be an important issue," Dr Ford said.

Announcing the winners the NSW Premier Nathan Rees said: "I hope that with the encouragement of these awards, our writers, filmmakers and other students of the past will continue to explore and explain our history for future generations."

Professor Anderson was one of four finalists in the General History Prize, all of whom were members of the University of Sydney's Department of History (see previous story here.)

The other finalists were Clare Corbould for Becoming African Americans: Black public life in Harlem, 1919-1939, Judith Keene for Treason on the Airwaves: three Allied broadcasters on Axis Radio during World War II, and Iain McCalman for Darwin's Armada: how four voyagers to Australasia won the battle for evolution and changed the world.

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 9351 2261

Email: 5b0539270d1b1e374d3110205c542238594a27