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Education Higher Education

Patient Zero and the Early North American HIV/AIDS Epidemic

About the Module


Richard A. McKay is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He completed his MS in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology in 2006 at the University of Oxford, and received his PhD in History in 2011, also from Oxford. His research interests include the histories of sexuality, sexually transmitted infections, and public health. Dr. McKay’s published works include “Sex and Skin Cancer” (2013) which focuses on the shifting cultural meanings associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in North America. He is the author of the article “Patient Zero” (2014) featured in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, which explores the historical and patient perspectives of Gaétan Dugas, the man named as “patient 0.” His provisionally entitled book, Patient Zero: Public Health, the Media, and the Making of the North American AIDS Epidemic examines the epidemiological context in which the term “patient 0” was coined. It charts how different social groups in Canada and the United States deployed the idea of “patient 0” for a variety of purposes, and contextualizes Gaétan Dugas’s experience with AIDS, aiming to provide a more historically sensitive understanding of this often-demonized patient.

Suggested Use

Patient Zero and the Early North American HIV/AIDS Epidemic is a module that blends the histories of medicine, public health, and sexuality in an exploration of a particular set of social, cultural, and medical responses to the emergence of the human immunodeficiency virus in North America in the 1980s. These coalesced around the idea that AIDS in North America could be traced to a single, identifiable individual.

Designed to complement general survey courses in the history of public health and history of medicine, the module can also be used to enrich courses in sexuality studies, cultural studies, and a variety of social science programs.


After completing this higher education module, 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.
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