Responding to AIDS: History, Politics, and Visual Culture

Grade Levels

Colleges and Universities

Academic Topics

  • History of Science and Medicine
  • U.S. History
  • Health Education
  • Cultural Studies
  • American Studies
  • Visual Arts
  • Sociology
  • Public Health

Learning Outcomes

After completing this class resource, students are expected to:

  • Use primary and secondary sources of varying media types related to the subject of HIV/AIDS to interpret and analyze the historical response to the disease.
  • Identify and explain how the U.S. government and health activists responded to an emerging and ultimately entrenched epidemic.
  • Engage in the field of visual culture as an area of study to analyze how public health campaigners visually communicate knowledge about disease, identify health risks, and promote changes in behavior.
  • Understand how stigma can shape public health policy.

Evaluate the process of scientific discovery and the respective roles biomedical research and epidemiology play in promoting health and preventing disease.


This class resource presents six separate one-hour lessons, each of which introduce its main topics along with suggested readings and discussion questions that help students explore thematic and visual material in the AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Public Health: A People’s History of a Pandemic exhibition. The class resource allows students to explore the history of AIDS in the United States, visual culture and the role of imagery in the response to AIDS, and scientists’ and activists’ responses to AIDS. Responding to AIDS includes digitally available, visual and textual items related to HIV/AIDS, selected from NLM’s Digital Collections, Profiles in Science, PubMed Central and other sources, for students to view, read, and expand their understanding about diverse and complex factors in responding to a health crisis.

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Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture is an adaptation of the university class resource, developed by Eric W. Boyle, PhD, for the archived Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture website from 2013. That online exhibition is now available as bilingual (English/Spanish) website with the same title, Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture/Sobrevivir y Prosperar: SIDA, Política y Cultura Close


  1. Lesson 1: Early AIDS History and Emerging Infectious Diseases

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    The first lesson explores how historical interpretations of AIDS changed dramatically in the first years after its identification, just as our understanding of other infectious diseases have shifted and evolved over time. Close

  2. Lesson 2: U.S. Government (In)Action

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    The second lesson focuses on analysis and interpretation of the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic following its emergence. Close

  3. Lesson 3: Visual Culture and Public Health Posters

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    The third lesson explores the subject of visual culture and the role of imagery in the history of responses to AIDS by deconstructing the various strategies used in public health posters as tools of public education designed to encourage disease prevention. Close

  4. Lesson 4: Target Populations, Harm Reduction, and Preventive Practices

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    The fourth lesson focuses on analysis of how public health officials and activists created messages designed for target populations. Close

  5. Lesson 5: Doing Science, Making Myths

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    The fifth lesson examines how and why scientists struggled to understand AIDS in the 1980s. Against the backdrop of fear and misunderstanding that permeated society, scientists’ initial findings sometimes produced unintended political consequences. Close

  6. Lesson 6: Fight Back, Fight AIDS

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    The final lesson explores how AIDS presented unprecedented challenges and opportunities for activists. The lesson pays particular attention to how activism and advocacy shaped public policy and responses to AIDS. Close

  7. About the Author

Learning Outcomes

After completing this higher education class, students are expected to:

  • Demonstrate a historically-grounded understanding of the emergence and recognition of HIV/AIDS in North America in the late 20th century.
  • Interpret scientific and popular attempts to understand the origins of HIV/AIDS, as well as several other historical epidemics which were accompanied by efforts to lay blame for the arrival and spread of disease.
  • Articulate the strengths and weaknesses of infectious disease epidemiology as a discipline.
  • Summarize the objectives and conclusions of the Centers for Disease Control’s Los Angeles cluster study.
  • Explain the origins of the term “patient 0” and the popular misconceptions surrounding its meanings.
  • Use primary source documents, images, and video to contextualize the creation and reception of Randy Shilts’s history, And the Band Played On.
  • Provide examples of how the idea of “Patient Zero” was incorporated into political debates about HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s.
  • Give examples of the continuing storytelling power offered by the idea of “Patient Zero” and the consequences of these stories.