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Higher Education Modules

Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture

Class 5: Doing Science, Making Myths

Class 5 begins with an examination of the biomedical response to AIDS in the United States. Gerald M. Oppenheimer uses medical literature from the time period to illustrate how epidemiology played a central role in characterizing HIV infection. Victoria A. Harden’s article provides an overview of the role that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) played in responding to the disease, and also suggests the ways that AIDS also had consequences for the NIH.

Students should complete the reading for all secondary sources before class. Discussion questions may be provided to students in advance. The article by Victoria A. Harden may be supplemented with or replaced by the background provided by the website In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS, which includes transcripts of interviews of NIH scientists engaged in AIDS-related research. The Profiles in Science website also includes background on the politics of research, with the example of NIH researcher and administrator Harold Varmus, and discussion of the much publicized priority dispute between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier regarding the cause of AIDS, which includes primary sources on the subject, including primary sources.

Secondary Sources:

Oppenheimer, Gerald M. “In the Eye of the Storm: The Epidemiological Construction of AIDS.” In AIDS: The Burdens of History. Edited by Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 267-300. Accessed April 30, 2013.

Harden, Victoria A. “The NIH and Biomedical Research on AIDS.” In AIDS and the Public Debate: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Edited by Caroline Hannaway, Harden, and John Parascandola. Washington DC: IOS Press, 1995, 30-46. Accessed April 30, 2013.

Primary Sources:

Harden, Victoria A. In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS.

National Library of Medicine. “The Harold Varmus Papers—AIDS and HIV: Science, Politics, and Controversy, 1981–1993.” Profiles in Science.

Discussion Questions
  1. What role did epidemiology play in characterizing HIV? How did epidemiologists lay the basis for an effective public health campaign and help make AIDS a concern of policymakers and the public?
  2. How did the Public Health Service initially respond to the AIDS epidemic? How did the National Institutes of Health’s internal and external research programs respond? What were the consequences of AIDS for the NIH?
  3. What do NIH researchers recall about the early years of AIDS research? How and why did a priority dispute between Robert Gallo and Luck Montagnier develop? What was at stake in their dispute and what consequences did it have?