Sunday, February 17, 2013

Randy Shilts and the Quest to Find the Origins of AIDS

Randy Shilts and the Quest to Find the Origins of AIDS

RIP Randy Shilts (August 8, 1951 - February 17, 1994). Shilts was one of the first reporters to introduce the world to the AIDS epidemic. He died nineteen years ago today, February 17th, but his legacy will live forever, I think even outliving the discovery of an AIDS cure.

Shilts' book, And the Band Played On, chronicles the early years of the AIDS pandemic, 1980 - 1985, offering a first peek at the origins of the pandemic. In his new book, The Origins of AIDS, Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pepin, picks up the story, capturing an in-depth picture of AIDS from its cradle until it became the pandemic we know today.

My review of The Origins of AIDS was originally published in A&U Magazine. Here it is again, in case you missed it.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS
Featuring images by award winning photographer Kurt Weston

Half-Faces: A Self-Portrait with Dab the AIDS Bear. Photo by Alina Oswald

The Origins of AIDS

by Jacques Pepin

Cambridge University Press

The first officially documented AIDS cases surfaced in the United States in 1981. With the epidemic, so started the quest for AIDS origins, and also a cure. More than three decades later, a cure is not yet in sight, but the image of the cradle of AIDS, its time and place defined, has come into new focus, as have the trails the virus first took to take over the world.

There are several theories surrounding the origins of AIDS, some more controversial than others. The widely accepted theories involve a few common factors: Africa as the birthplace of the pandemic; a monkey hunter as its Patient Zero; a virus that jumped species from a chimp to a human, and then tens of millions of individuals.

While many books captured various facets of AIDS after its impact on the mainstream community, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On offered a chronicle of the early years of AIDS. Following in Shilts’ footsteps, Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pepin captures an even earlier picture of the AIDS pandemic through its catalysts—social factors that allowed HIV’s incendiary spread and the virus’s innate ability to start a pandemic. In the process, Pepin finds, possibly once and for all, the answers to questions we’ve been asking ourselves for decades:

What (and maybe who) helped the few initial HIV infections to set off a pandemic?
How could we let it happen?

In his new book, Pepin revisits “the origins of AIDS,” taking us on a journey back in time and place, to early twentieth century Central Africa, offering a scientific documentation of the evolution of AIDS from cradle to pandemic. Pepin follows this remarkable journey chronicling the many factors—including political, economical, and also human—that have facilitated the first few HIV infections to grow exponentially, travel from Africa to Europe and Haiti to reach the United States, and come to light in the summer of 1981.

In his book, Pepin explains his theory that the original HIV infections (from chimps to humans) were very few and thus impossible, by themselves, to set off a pandemic. Human and social factors helped as well: the en-masse immunizations for sleeping disease, while using same needles, and also the virus’s ability to initiate this pandemic under certain conditions. And it was possible because we/humans facilitated these conditions.

The language of Pepin’s book is academic, yet easily accessible to a lay, educated readership. Graphics, charts and maps emphasize the text content. The Origins of AIDS offers, for the first time, an in-depth look into the pandemic prior to 1981 and, with that, the missing pieces that complete the story of AIDS.


  1. Hello,

    Your post came by way of author Brandon Shire's Twitter feed. I'm currently reading Shilts' And The Band Played On, a book that's been on my to read list for while, although I've seen the movie adaptation a number of times. Coincidentally, I was discussing Pepin's book last night with a group of friends. So, your post and review of Origins of AIDS was a welcomed surprise. Thank you. I've placed the book on my reading list.


  2. Hi Indigene,

    Thanks so much for your comment! Also, many thanks to Brandon Shire for re-twitting my post. What can I say... I believe in coincidences :-) I've been covering AIDS for over ten years now and found every moment of the experience quite intriguing, and also inspiring. Randy Shilts is one of my favorite authors, and I've read And the Band Played On a few years ago. I'm not sure which one I favor--the book or the movie--but recently I discovered And the Band Played On, the movie, on (what a feeling to re-watch this movie, especially knowing what we know now about the pandemic...)

    Shilts' book came to mind while reading Pepin's Origins of AIDS. They both take an in-depth look at the cradle of AIDS and how it all started. I found the Origins to be quite a refreshing and eye-opening story. And I found Pepin quite brave to write it.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post and hope you'll visit often. I'll also visit, sounds like a fantastic place to be for indie authors (like myself), indie book readers, and others.

    Thanks again so very much,


    Alina Oswald
    Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS

  3. Hi Alina,

    Thanks for your response and the follow-back on Twitter.

    I had the opportunity to first see the movie when it premiered at the Montreal International Film Festival in 1993 and recall what a powerful experience that was. But in reading the book one truly gets the sense of the people (activists and health professionals) worldwide involved in trying to raise awareness of the disease in those early years in order to save lives and how their efforts fell on deaf ears, until the disease had begun to spread to the heterosexual community. Although I'm only have way through the book, I consider this work a journalistic feat for Shilts' but also a documentation of the the tragic outcomes for humanity when science of any kind is ignored because of politics and discrimination.

    I look forward to more of your posts.


  4. Hi Indigene,

    Thanks for following back. And, again, thanks for your comment. I agree. And I think often, we need to revisit works like Shilts' to better understand and appreciate where we are nowadays, in the fight towards an AIDS-free generation.

    Again, thanks so much for posting and I, too, look forward to reading your updates and tweets.