On this date in 1981, an article appeared in The New York Times by Lawrence K. Altman with the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The rare cancer was Kaposi’s sarcoma, or KS, which was generally seen in older men of Mediterranean descent, and even then in small numbers as a slowly progressing cancer. These patients, by contrast, from New York and Los Angeles, were often under 40 and as young as 26. This article would prove to be the first report in a major newspaper anywhere in the world of what would come to be known as AIDS.
Just a month earlier, on June 5, there had been an article in a public health newsletter from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), about 5 cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) in gay men in Los Angeles.
It’s chilling to read these media reports now, today, for me, sitting here in my house, with my husband in the next room, antiretroviral drugs in my body suppressing my HIV infection, preserving my immune system, preventing me from developing opportunistic infections like KS or PCP.
There’s an eerie kind of dramatic irony when I read these media reports now, like watching a movie where I know the ocean liner will sink, the derrigible explode, the British socialite will murder his wife.
The article about PCP in MMWR begins:
In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died. All 5 patients had laboratory-confirmed previous or current cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candidal mucosal infection.
The article in the Times says in part:
Many of the patients have also been treated for viral infections such as herpes, cytomegalovirus and hepatitis B as well as parasitic infections such as amebiasis and giardiasis. Many patients also reported that they had used drugs such as amyl nitrite and LSD to heighten sexual pleasure.
These ideas, images, tropes—active homosexuals; concomitant viral infections and fungal infections, some of then generally associated with severely compromised immune systems, others with unprotected sex; mention of amyl nitrite (poppers) and LSD to “heighten sexual pleasure.” While Altman’s article seems to me on the whole to be quite fair and balanced, it uses the language of its times (“homosexual” instead of “gay”) and, whether it means to or not (I strongly suspect not), it lays the groundwork for the demonization of gay men that the emerging AIDS epidemic would soon spawn.
You can see the slow motion train wreck unfolding. The Times reports that, while the cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence that the condition is contagious, “the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.”
Within a few years, the notion of identifying affected gay men so as to provide treatment will morph into a hysterical public outcry to round up the carriers and quarantine them as pariahs. And all too soon we will come to know that while chemotherapy might be effective in treating AIDS-related KS, there is in the long run no way to stop the relentless onslaught of immune deficiency in the wake of whatever was causing this mysterious, deadly, and terrifying new disease.
For many years I read The Great Gatsby every year, generally in summer, after my spring semester of high school or college was over, not only for the pleasure, but so that I would never forget how beautiful and brilliant it was. Today, on NPR, as they do every year, all the correspondents and anchors joined in reading the Declaration of Independence, not only for its soaring revolutionary rhetoric, but so that we will never forget how brave and inspired were the members of the Continental Congress. (I will risk admitting that I got choked up as I recited aloud with them the line, “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”) Perhaps I should begin reading Lawrence K. Altman’s “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” in The New York Times every year on July 3, not only for its measured and professional reportage, but so that I never forget the relatively…what—benign, innocuous, innocent? None of those words seem right. But the small, almost banal origins of what would come to be such a devastating and at the same time socially, culturally, and historically transformative crisis.
It was not until about 18 months later, after similar cases of PCP, KS, and other signs of severe immune deficiency were noted in injecting drug users, Haitians, hemophiliacs, blood transfusion recipients, and women with no apparent risk factors that a wider public began to take notice of this disease, to realize that it was not going to remain confined to specific populations, and to understand that it was on its way to reaching an epidemic scale. And except for the public health wonks who read MMWR, that entire public unfolding of what-would-be began on this date in 1981, under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” in the national newspaper of record.
Read an interesting op-ed piece about those early days of AIDS by Altman himself from 2011.