Historiography Saturday: Gaëtan Dugas

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Popularized in the late 1980s as “Patient Zero,” the man responsible for the introduction and spread of HIV in North America, Gaëtan Dugas was a Canadian flight attendant with an extensive sexual history who died of AIDS. His notoriety, ignited by journalist Randy Shilts‘ book And The Band Played On, was part of a calculated publicity ploy meant to draw attention to the work so its broader message indicting the Reagan administration and calling for increased attention to the pandemic would reach critics. Sure enough, a promiscuous homosexual scapegoat was enough to win Band an article in Time magazine and a subsequent spot on the bestseller list. The term “Patient Zero” even became slang for “index case,” the first recorded example of a medical condition, despite the fact that Dugas had been referred to as “Patient O” in the original study (“O” stood for “Out of California”). The truth of Dugas’ life has largely vanished from the public consciousness, though a recording does exist of him speaking at an HIV/AIDS forum prior to his death.

In addition to illustrating the complexity of compiling medical knowledge with limited resources, Dugas’ story also raises the question of whether the end result of knowingly cultivating a myth can justify its positive consequences. History is written with an agenda in mind; it behooves its creators to pay careful thought to whether their cause is a responsible one, and who is worth sacrificing to achieve it.

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