In 1982, the Canadian air steward Gaëtan Dugas wrote of his worsening illness in a letter to Ray Redford, his former lover. Believing he had what was being called “gay cancer”, Dugas had shaved his hair ahead of expected chemotherapy. He felt nude without it, he said. Like an alien.
Dugas told friends he was ready to fight and beat the cancer, but he died in 1984. By then, scientists and public-health officials had a new, more formal, name for the illness that claimed his life — HIV/AIDS. Dugas was given a different label, too. As the attention of politicians and journalists was drawn to the unfolding crisis, he was identified as ‘Patient Zero’ of the US epidemic. He was demonized as a knowing and callous reservoir of infection and as a deliberate transmitter of disease. He was regularly compared with Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary — the cook who, several decades earlier, ignored instructions not to prepare food, and infected dozens in New York City with that bacterial disease.
Thirty years on, samples of the virus that closed down Dugas’s immune system still exist. And in a research paper this week, disease scientists report how they have analysed its genetic sequence. The results are important for two reasons. In clinical terms, they show that Dugas’s virus was, in many ways, unexceptional. And in human terms, they clear his name.