5 New York Times Writers on What They Got Right and Wrong in the Early ’80sOn April 15, 2018 by Margot
“Stage: ‘Fool for Love,’ Sam Shepard Western,” by Frank Rich, published May 27, 1983.
What No One Could Have Predicted
Lawrence K. Altman, M.D. joined The New York Times science news staff in 1969, and is believed to be the first licensed physician to work as a daily newspaper reporter.
New York and the rest of the world, including The New York Times, were ill-prepared for the arrival and spread of a new disease (later named AIDS) when the first cases were recognized among gay men in 1981. For three years, while fear tore through the gay community, the world’s most sophisticated laboratories could not identify the cause. Experts debated various candidates (among them: toxins, drugs, sperm in the bowel) until the discovery of the retrovirus H.I.V. Even after epidemiologists documented that the virus spread only through sexual contact, childbirth or injections of contaminated drugs and blood, disbelievers shunned public restrooms and restaurants for fear that it could be passed through food and flatware. Many hospital workers avoided AIDS patients and left trays by the door where occupants were too weak to pick them up. Some doctors refused to treat AIDS patients.
At the time, medicine was celebrating the eradication of a naturally occurring disease (smallpox) from the world for the first time and installing the first artificial hearts in humans. Earlier, I had written about the discoveries of the Ebola and Lassa fever viruses and the Legionnaire’s disease bacterium, as well as the ways in which health workers stopped outbreaks of these infections. Few thought — and certainly no one I know went on record to predict — that AIDS would become one of the worst pandemics in history, infecting an estimated 76 million people and killing 35 million of them.
At Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where, in the late 1970s, I was an attending physician in addition to working as a reporter at The Times, I saw a small number of young patients with unusual infections. Others had enlarged lymph nodes throughout their body. Many had been injection drug users. These cases baffled the medical staff.
My plans to write about the mysterious ailment before my first article about AIDS appeared on July 3, 1981 were thwarted by assigned coverage of the attempted assassinations of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II and by two broken elbows, souvenirs of an accident in Italy. My initial article focused on 41 cases of a rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, in homosexual men (The Times did not allow people to be described as “gay” at that time) who also had seriously abnormal immune systems. But whether these immune issues were the cause of, or resulted from, their ailment was unknown. Many in the gay community ridiculed the article as a needless scare. Scientists who went on to become international leaders in battling AIDS considered this collection of cases to be an oddity, until a broader picture emerged in the advancing months and years. In 1985, I traveled through Africa to report that in many sub-Saharan countries, AIDS infected nearly as many women as men through heterosexual intercourse. I went on to write several hundred articles about scientific discoveries of the virus, its uncanny ability to trick the immune system and the development of drugs that now make AIDS a chronic disease. Despite these and other advances, it is still transmitted in this country and the world.
“Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” by Lawrence K. Altman, published July 3, 1981.