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Doing Science, Making Myths

During the mid-1980s, public health officials and scientists struggled to understand AIDS. They undertook fledgling research on shoestring budgets, conducting two distinct yet related investigations that emerged in a swirl of scientific facts and cultural myths. Some sought to determine how AIDS spread. Others tried to locate the biological agent responsible for spreading the disease. Against the backdrop of fear and misunderstanding that permeated society, scientists’ initial findings sometimes produced unintended political consequences.

  • Dr. Luc Montagnier smiling and leaning left arm on counter, in white lab coat.

    Dr. Luc Montagnier, Pasteur Institute, France, 2000

    Reprinted with permission from MacMillan Publishers Ltd: Nature Magazine, vol. 6, no. 3, March 2000

    In May 1983, a team of scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, led by Dr. Luc Montagnier, announced that they had isolated a new virus, called lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV), thought to be the cause of AIDS. The team sent samples to scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for confirmation.

  • Robert C. Gallo, MD in white lab coat looking through a microscope.

    Robert C. Gallo, MD, at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980s

    National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

    In April 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute at NIH isolated HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus III) as the cause of AIDS. Scientists later determined it was the same virus identified as LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus) by Dr. Luc Montagnier and his team at the Pasteur Institute a year earlier. Despite disagreement over who made the initial discovery, French and American researchers eventually agreed to share the credit. In 1986, the virus was renamed HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Identifying a viral cause enabled the scientific community to develop a test for HIV and better confront AIDS with treatment.

  • Chart depicting sexual contacts among homosexual men with AIDS in a study.

    Map of sexual contacts among homosexual men with AIDS, from William Darrow, PhD, et al., “Cluster of Cases of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” American Journal of Medicine, March 1984

    Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and William W. Darrow, PhD

    William Darrow, a medical sociologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drew this map to provide graphic evidence that AIDS was infectious and spread by sexual contact. After dozens of interviews and intricate data analysis, he and his collaborators presented this “cluster” of patients. Patient O, shown in the center of the network and originally shorthand for “out-of-California,” was read inaccurately as Patient Zero. The data quickly became fodder for popular accounts that sought to identify the earliest case of AIDS in America.

    Want to see what the report said? (PDF | Transcription)

  • Gaétan Dugas, red handwritten text evident underneath image of Dugas.

    Marked up page from “The 25 Most Intriguing People of ‘87,” People, December 28, 1987

    Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Library and Center for Knowledge Management, University of California, San Francisco

    People magazine featured Gaétan Dugas as Patient Zero, naming him one of 1987’s most intriguing people by incorrectly blaming him for infecting America with AIDS. The editors pulled Dugas’s story from And the Band Played On, a widely read chronicle of the AIDS crisis by gay journalist Randy Shilts. The book’s tale of Patient Zero, which was at odds with existing scientific evidence, overshadowed its more substantive account of government negligence. By relying on age-old stereotypes of gay men as catty, promiscuous, and more interested in sex than health, Shilts’s book and the People  magazine feature on Dugas prompted angry, homophobic responses. This marked up copy of People magazine, anonymously mailed to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, exemplifies negative reactions.

  • Black and white newspaper article with photograph of Gaétan Dugas’ Airline Steward badge.

    ACT UP/San Francisco’s repurposed image of Gaétan Dugas advertisement from the New York Times, August 23, 1988

    Courtesy Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society

    Despite statements to the contrary, the myth of Patient Zero did nothing to contain the AIDS epidemic. San Francisco activists reclaimed Gaétan Dugas’s story and image to counter hateful stigmatizations and defend all people with AIDS as deserving of care and treatment.