Robert Klitzman

The Trembling Mountain: A personal Account of Kuru, Cannibals and Mad Cow Disease

"Between his undergraduate years at Princeton and medical school at Yale, Klitzman spent a year conducting basic epidemiological research in Papua, New Guinea. Here, as in his books covering his medical internship (A Year-Long Night) and psychiatric training (In a House of Dreams and Glass), he presents an engaging autobiographical account of his experiences. Working for Nobel Prize-winner (Physiology/​Medicine, 1976) Carleton Gajdusek in 1981, Klitzman lived amid the Fore, a previously cannibalistic tribe in some of the most remote parts of the country. Their community had been devastated by kuru, a deadly and heartbreaking neurological disease, spread by the ritual consumption of deceased relatives (including brain matter). Over the course of the narrative, the young Klitzman interviews stricken individuals, comes to grips with hugely divergent cultures and comes of age himself. What gives kuru additional and timely import, and makes it more than just an odd tropical malady, is that it appears to be closely related to Mad Cow disease ... a briskly engaging and informative work."
--Publishers Weekly

"The key word here is personal. Physician Robert Klitzman tells us his life story and humanizes what could easily have been a tabloid-size horror story of Stone Age cannibals and rotten-brained cows. Vivid portraits of the men and women he helped and worked with lift this book above mere sensationalism, showing one people's tragedy in the hopes that others can be averted. Kuru is a fatal disease formerly epidemic among the Fore people of New Guinea, with symptoms including involuntary laughing, dementia, and loss of motor control. Traced to their ritual cannibalism, it was found to be caused by nonliving crystal-like proteins in the brain. Klitzman traveled to New Guinea before attending medical school to work with these people and quickly learned how little Western medicine could do for the afflicted--he could only make their deaths as comfortable as possible. His despair is palpable. Fortunately, most Fore have been convinced to give up the most dangerous of their ancestral practices, and the disease has largely abated. But mad cow disease (and others like it), caused by the same class of protein as kuru, remains a threat to Westerners--a threat Klitzman would rather we not face. His very personal story forces us as readers to examine our own lives and our own ancestral practices, perhaps to make some changes ourselves."
--Rob Lightner,

Selected works

Non-fiction book
"This is a detailed first look at a critical aspect of U.S. medicine that may not mesmerize causal readers, but should prove indispensable for reform." - Publishers Weekly
Fresh from medical school, Robert Klitzman began his residency in psychiatry with excitement and a sense of mission. But he was not prepared for what he found inside the city psychiatric center where he was to spend three grueling years. In truth, as Dr. Klitzman's absorbing account of his apprenticeship reveals, he never ceased to be surprised--by his patients, by the senior psychiatrists' conflicting advice on how to help them, and by the unpredictable results of the therapies, both psychoanalytic and biologic, that he and his fellow residents practiced. Nights in the emergency room, professional controversy, the minefield of hospital politics, the stress of his own therapy--everything is here, in a passionate and illuminating analysis of a doctor's struggle against tremendous odds to banish his patients' demons. [AN] INSIGHTFUL MEMOIR . . . RECOMMENDED." --Library Journal
"[Klitzman's] sensitive, humanist approach converts information into knowledge."
--Andrew Solomon, author of Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
"Klitzman's work is an important contribution to physical training and patient care. The wisdom shared in When Doctors Become Patients holds potential to make all physicians better caregivers."--JAMA
"...a book for anyone desiring to move forward in the fight against the illness, not the people."
--Erica Prigg, Health Communication
New York Times article
Op-Ed essay on the death of Osama Bin Laden
".. a briskly engaging and informative work."
--Publishers Weekly
"There are extraordinary moments...[The book] describe[s] the tension between the endless stress and the fantastic learning curve of his Year-long Night.
--Washington Post