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Lumen Summer 2013 Issue
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To the Fore - Distinguished Alumni Award

Attending graduation ceremonies in Bonython Hall - in very different capacities - bookends the remarkable 50-year career of Professor Michael Alpers AO.

Professor Alpers has received a Distinguished Alumni Award for his outstanding contribution nationally and internationally in the field of medical research.

He received an honorary doctorate from the University at its September graduations, and also gave the occasional address.
Prior to this year, the last time he was in Bonython Hall was 1961, to graduate with an MBBS (he also has a BSc, awarded in 1956).

Professor Alpers' career has been devoted to studying and helping the Fore people of the Eastern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea.

The Fore suffered from kuru, a devastating and incurable neurological disease which causes lack of coordination, body tremors and shaking limbs - symptoms that worsen as sufferers progress towards death over a period of 6-18 months. In the late 1950s, kuru caused 200 deaths a year.

Professor Alpers helped prove that kuru was caused by a transmissible infectious agent and that the mode of transmission was cannibalism, ritualistically performed by family members of the recently deceased.

This was of particular consequence for women and children, as they ate the infected brains of relatives. Since 1999, he has used the term 'transumption' for this ritual mortuary practice.

But Professor Alpers said his time in PNG was much more than simply researching and treating a group of people suffering from a strange affliction.

"I'd gone from living a comfortable existence in Australia and England to being at the frontier of a society which had only just come into contact with the outside world," he said.

"It was an amazing experience. I was very privileged to be part of a culture which welcomed me into their lives and made me feel at home from Day One."

Professor Alpers used both his medical and science training to study the cultural, behavioural, clinical, epidemiological and biomedical aspects of kuru.

"In many ways, the differences between the Fore and the Western World couldn't have been more vast - and yet, I think the common humanity that we shared was just as important as understanding the differences," he said.

"To solve what was going on with kuru, we had to understand the Fore people and their lifestyle, traditions and culture - and I think we were able to do that by living with them for years and taking the time to fully appreciate them and their way of life."

Now based in Curtin University in Western Australia, Professor Alpers still makes annual field trips to Papua New Guinea, where kuru has been effectively wiped out among the Fore people. The last patient died in 2009. Kuru lasted until then only because of its remarkably long incubation period.

Professor Alpers described his most recent honours from his alma mater as "very gratifying".

"I hadn't been in Bonython Hall since I graduated - to be able to get an honorary degree and give the occasional address in front of my family and friends was very gratifying, and I am thankful to be recognised in this way," he said.

story by Ben Osborne

Above: Professor Alpers AO at Bonython Hall in September, where he received his honorary doctorate and gave the occasional address.

Above: Professor Alpers AO at Bonython Hall in September, where he received his honorary doctorate and gave the occasional address.
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