Michael Alpers combined a sensitive understanding of the isolated Fore people in Papua New Guinea with his medical training to reveal how the degenerative brain disease kuru was transmitted. His findings are of central importance in understanding related prion diseases, including BSE and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.
Collaborating in the 1960s with Carleton Gajdusek, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Michael collected samples of brain tissue from deceased victims in their villages. Their experiments confirmed that women and children contracted kuru through the recently outlawed funerary ritual of eating the brains of dead relatives.
Michael continued to monitor the population: the last death from kuru occurred in 2009. The research laboratory he established on the island has also investigated other infectious diseases, including malaria. In 2005, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, and in 2008 a Companion of the Papua New Guinean Order of the Star of Melanesia.