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Watching, terrified, as a trickle of patients became a flood // Battling, bravely, against activist outrage and social stigmas // Searching, without pause, for answers // Advancing, inexorably, toward a cure.

25 Years of AIDS

By Michael Hirson // Spring 2006
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AIDS memorial quilt

Jeffrey Markowitz/Corbis

The epidemic and its stories stretch as far as the eye can see, covering more than a million square feet of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Twenty-five years ago, casual sex carried little fatal risk, and homosexuality was seldom discussed in mainstream society. But all that changed during the summer of 1981, when several gay men in New York and California died of rare infections their bodies should have fought off with ease. The emergence of a new affliction, soon christened with what became a terrifying acronym—AIDS, for acquired immune deficiency syndrome—led to seismic shifts in sexual attitudes and forever changed the relationship between patients and the medical system.

Few people had a more intimate view of those changes than Anthony S. Fauci, Robert C. Gallo, Mathilde Krim and Bruce Walker. In 1981 the four were at different stages of medical careers that might have been spent quietly toiling in labs and clinics. Yet by fate and by choice, they found themselves at the front of the race to unlock the secrets of a new disease. In the years that followed, they took on unfamiliar, often uncomfortable roles—as targets (and later allies) of activists; as politicians and educators; as diplomats and foreign aid workers.

Here, the four describe what they’ve learned during a quarter-century of fighting AIDS. Their insights extend beyond AIDS to inform our understanding of how medicine should solve essential problems, whether cancer or the next pandemic.

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1. “In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS” ( An online trove of oral histories, original documents and time lines, recounting the efforts of NIH physicians, scientists and officials to confront the AIDS crisis.

2. Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery, by Robert C. Gallo [Basic Books, 1993]. No scientist was more enmeshed in the politics of AIDS research than Gallo, who here answers his critics in an exhaustive—though often slow-going—account.

3. Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, by Jon Cohen [W.W. Norton, 2001]. A perceptive critique of the bureaucratic wrangling, marketplace failures and personal rivalries that have held back development of an AIDS vaccine.

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