“Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic” by Richard A. McKay— Following An Idea

McKay, Richard A. “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic”, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Following An Idea

Amos Lassen

 “Patient Zero” is popularly understood to be the first person infected in the AIDS epidemic and has been the key to media coverage of major infectious disease outbreaks for more than three decades. Yet the term itself did not exist before the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. We have wondered how quickly this idea came to exert such a strong grip on the scientific, media, and popular consciousness. Richard A. McKay in “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic” interprets a wealth of archival sources and interviews to demonstrate how this seemingly new concept drew upon centuries-old ideas—and fears regarding contagion and social disorder.

This is a carefully documented and sensitively written account of the life of Gaétan Dugas, a gay man whose skin cancer diagnosis in 1980 took on very different meanings as the HIV/AIDS epidemic developed. He also received widespread posthumous infamy when he was incorrectly identified as patient zero of the North American outbreak. McKay shows how investigators from the US Centers for Disease Control inadvertently created the term inadvertently when they were researching the term amid their early research into the health crisis at the beginning and how an ambitious journalist amplified the idea in his determination to reframe national debates about AIDS. Many people struggled with the notion of patient zero by adopting, challenging and redirecting its powerful meanings in order to try to make sense of and respond to the first fifteen years of an epidemic that was unfolding before their very eyes. This book untangles the complex process by which individuals and groups create meaning and allocate blame when faced with new disease threats. In effect, McKay gives us revisionist history.

Below is the Table of Contents:


List of Abbreviations

Introduction: “He Is Still Out There”

  1. What Came Before Zero?
  2. The Cluster Study
  3. “Humanizing This Disease”
  4. Giving a Face to the Epidemic
  5. Ghosts and Blood
  6. Locating Gaétan Dugas’s Views

Epilogue: Zero Hour—Making Histories of the North American AIDS Epidemic

Appendix: Oral History Interviews



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