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Higher Education Modules

Society at Odds: the Evolution of AIDS Outreach and Education in America

Class 1: AIDS as a Disease in Social and Political Context

This class examines how AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) emerged in the US as a new disease in early 1980s and became a medical challenge that also developed into a political and social issue. Dr. Ronald’s and Dr. Oppenheimer’s recorded lecture at the National Library of Medicine in 2001, offers a summary of oral histories from doctors, nurses and other health professionals who worked with people with AIDS in the US, prior to earning its name. These accounts present some of the challenges in identifying, treating, and educating people about AIDS, by providing first-hand accounts of early AIDS diagnoses and treatments, and the challenges faced by medical providers and patients alike. The online “Timeline: 25 Years of AIDS” chronicles and links five categories of AIDS-related events—science, US politics, activism, cultural milestones, and HIV’s global spread. Shilts describes the US social and political climates in the 1980s, offering the context in which individuals, groups, and governments learned about and reacted to AIDS. These class materials help students understand AIDS and its history beyond medical context and alongside the socio-political environment in the US in the 1980s.


Bayer, Ronald and Gerald M. Oppenheimer. “The Biography of an Epidemic: An Oral History of Doctors and AIDS.” Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Awareness Month Lecture, National Library of Medicine (U.S.), Bethesda, MD, 2001.

Shilts, Randy. “Part II: Before 1980.” In And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: Penguin Books, 1987, pp. 11-50.

“Timeline: 25 Years of AIDS.” Frontline: The Age of AIDS. Accessed April 15, 2013.

Discussion Questions
  1. What perspectives do oral histories offer that other sources (such as historical documents or medical statistics) might not? What impact does this have in the Bayer & Oppenheimer piece? Why might this be an important piece in the history of AIDS and other diseases?
  2. How do the five categories in the “Timeline: 25 years of AIDS” help you understand AIDS history by contextualizing the disease not only in science, but also in culture, politics and geography? Would these categories be applicable for timelines of other diseases, such as the Avian Flu or breast cancer? Why or why not? Which categories might be more relevant and which strike you as specific to AIDS?
  3. How does Shilts describe the social and political climates of the 1980s? What key issues does he discuss? How would you describe the social or cultural context of America in the early 1980s as AIDS began to arise as a medical issue? How did AIDS present a challenge to some of the explicit and implicit values of that time?
  4. What sense do you have of the medical community’s initial reception of AIDS? How and why did the doctors change and adapt the ways in which they treated AIDS patients?
  5. Compare the doctors’ attitudes and accounts in the Shilts’s chapter and those in the Bayer and Oppenheimer’s lecture. What are the similarities? Differences? What were the main sources of concern the doctors and health care professionals voiced in each piece?
  6. How does Shilts describe the attitudes towards sex in the gay community? Did everyone share the same viewpoint or was there conflict? What, if any, were the differences and why were they significant in the early years of AIDS?