Bioethics Blogs

Not Getting Closure: Reflecting on the Vindication of Gaetan Dugas by Greg Clinton

Now drowned in the torrent of post-election analysis, on October 26, 2016, the journal Nature published a study which traced genomic data in an effort to map the spread of HIV in North America. The newsworthy conclusion of the study was a full-throated scientific vindication of Gaetan Dugas, the man erroneously dubbed “Patient Zero” in Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, a popular depiction of the spread of HIV in the United States during the early 1980s. Dugas was a French-Canadian flight attendant who became a person of interest in the epidemiological detection of HIV in its early days, since he had had sexual contact with so many of the early cases on the West Coast. The original researchers dubbed him “patient ‘O’” (for “outside”); Shilts and others translated this as “patient ‘0’”, or the index case. Shilts also portrayed Dugas as willingly careless and negligent. The study published in Nature concluded that Dugas was not the index case in North America; his demonization by Shilts and other media has been corrected.

The fervor over this vindication — garnering editorials and spots in The New York Times (here and here), NPR, the Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine, and Science magazine, among others — led me to reflect on the spectacle of disease narratives, not only what they emphasize, but what they tend to obscure. Epidemics are both disease events and media events. The spectacle of disease — the “literary” construction of a disease event in media, especially visual media — constitutes the social and political force of epidemics.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.