Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic

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by Richard A. McKay

University of Chicago Press


SKU: 9780226063959


Much has been written about Gaetan Dugas, the sexually insatiable French Canadian flight attendant who came to be known as "Patient Zero," the man who has been blamed for sparking the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Newspapers around the world picked up on journalist Randy Shilts's narrative of Dugas as the "Quebecois version of Typhoid Mary." But late in October of 2016, newspapers around the world galvanized again, this time picking up on a stunning development: it turns out that the AIDS virus was circulating within U.S. borders a full decade before it was officially recognized in 1981. Two researchers for Nature made the announcement that Dugas was not the source of the pandemic in North America. New techniques of RNA analysis allowed for assembling the complete HIV genome and tracking its history. One of the two researchers is our historian author, Richard McKay, and he has now come forward to tell the full story of how the idea of an epidemic's "Patient Zero" swiftly came to exert such a strong grip on the scientific, media, and popular consciousness. This book does a spectacular job of reconstructing the role of Gaetan Dugas, surely the most demonized patient in history, and of how institutions like the CDC created meaning and allocated blame when dealing with a new epidemic disease. There is truly riveting biographical material here about Dugas and also about Shilts, all from primary written and oral sources. McKay illuminates powerful ruptures within the LGBT community that were laid bare by the AIDS epidemic, and he gives us the first holistic account of responses to that epidemic, expanding our knowledge of VD surveillance in mid-20th century as well as imparting intimate understanding of the illness experience of Dugas, who died in 1984. A potential publicity bonanza, Patient Zero is myth-smashing revisionist history at its best.


"The AIDS epidemic is far from over, and it is crucial that we understand both the history and the myths of AIDS. As a real detective, McKay meticulously analyzes the early days of what has become the largest pandemic in modern times, unraveling the myth of one man triggering the epidemic in North America. This well written book is a must read for historians, practitioners, and activists." -- Peter Piot, director London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and founding executive director, UNAIDS

"McKay has done historians of medicine a tremendous service by providing a nuanced and representative view of Gaetan Dugas." -- American Historical Review

"Surprisingly readable for a book of such cool, acute analysis, its most eye-opening sections include an empathetic look at the life and personal perspectives of Gaétan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant who was vilified and villainized as Patient Zero in the popular press. . .McKay not only dismantles this atomic bomb of fake news, but explores the way it distorted and distracted from rational approaches to the spread of the virus." -- Jim Gladstone, Passport

About the Author:

Richard A. McKay is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.