To mark World AIDS Day, Katherine Ott takes us back almost 40 years when people began to sicken and die from a mysterious and frightening disease that became a global pandemic.
It has been almost 40 years since the first official reports of HIV and AIDS began to alarm the public. It was not called that back then, of course, and all anyone knew is that people—first young gay men, then heterosexual women, injection drug users and then hell broke loose—were sick with diseases that were highly unusual for them. The importance of this history lies both in the sheer notoriety of the virus and in the significant impact the syndrome has had on American science, life, and culture. The global impact is equally immense. AIDS is the most publicized disease of the past half-century and has become a household word, but even today many people lack a historical context for why it is so feared and so devastating.
The history of HIV-AIDS has been told many times, from different perspectives. Analysis is widely available on the internet and in professional journals, books, and newspapers, and don’t forget the health information distributed everywhere from doctor’s offices, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants, to phone booths and gas station bathrooms. Rather than simply replicate what others have done and aware that we can’t tell much of the complicated history in a small space, The American History Museum created an exhibition (now online) that concentrates on the epidemic’s earliest years, 1981-1987.
Another reason to focus on the early years is the dramatic difference in tone and urgency when compared with today. My interns and other young people with whom I work approach STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and protection as largely uncontroversial and not very interesting. They have little comprehension of the intensity of the conflict that surrounded public discussion of sex, drugs, condoms, and LGBTQ legitimacy back in the 1980s.
The museum has a strong collection of objects related to HIV and AIDS. We have been collecting objects and other materials almost from the beginning. The ephemera are especially rich, such as ACT UP posters, demonstration flyers, health information pamphlets, and magazines. We also have lab equipment from Jay Levy’s San Francisco lab (one of the scientists who isolated the virus), various medications, lots of condoms, needle exchange objects, political buttons and T-Shirts, an AIDS Memorial Quilt panel for Roger Lyons, red ribbons, and more.
Visit the online exhibition “HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago” for a look at the public health, scientific and political responses in the early phase (1981-87) of the global pandemic, including oral histories and interviews.
Listen to our award-winning podcast, Sidedoor: “This color is who I am,” which takes a look at the early HIV/AIDS crisis through the eyes of artist Frank Holliday, whose life and work were changed by it forever.
This is an edited version of a post by Katherine Ott, curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National History Museum, that was originally published by the Museum of American History blog, “O Say Can You See?”
Posted: 1 December 2018