In the spring of 1981, four young gay male patients were referred to Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young assistant professor at UCLA specializing in immunology, with a series of opportunistic infections. Author Bruce J. Hillman, MD charts the course that Dr. Gottlieb took that would lead to the discovery of AIDS and the dissolution of his academic career in A Plague on All Our Houses.
After contacting the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), an action that had to be suggested by the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) owning to Gottlieb’s professional naivety, he confirmed an additional case via autopsy. Gottlieb and his colleagues collected their data and he drafted what is now considered one of the most notable medical publications of the century. As the lead author of the NEJM article which described a new disease, Gottlieb was pulled in many directions: academic researcher, clinician, spokesperson, grant writer and fundraiser. As the doctor who discovered a new undetectable infectious disease, Gottlieb attracted many patients, most of whom were gay. At the same time, UCLA was trying to brand itself as a transplant center. A mixture of fear and homophobia began to build in earnest. Jealousy joined the mix when Gottlieb drew additional attention as the specialist who cared for Rock Hudson. When Elizabeth Taylor decided to dedicate herself to finding a cure after the death of her friend and a relative, she turned to Gottlieb for counsel, and the mixture neared the boiling point.
If you enjoyed Rebecca Skloot’s work examining the health and societal impact of the HeLa cells juxtaposed against the lives of her children deprived of their mother in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this medical story is for you.