New Research Uncovers Willful Misrepresentation of Medical Data in Creation of AIDS "Patient Zero" Myth

May 09, 2013, 10:06 ET from Philadelphia University

PHILADELPHIA, May 9, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- According to extensive research conducted for his recently released book, Philadelphia University scholar and professor Phil Tiemeyer says the infamous myth of a "Patient Zero" who brought AIDS to the U.S. in the early 1980s was based on a willful misrepresentation of Centers for Disease Control data and a calculated effort to manipulate the media to generate publicity for a book on the crisis itself.

In Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants, Tiemeyer details the story of how author Randy Shilts, in his bestselling book And the Band Played On (later the source of an HBO docudrama of the same name) painted Air Canada flight attendant Gaetan Dugas as the "Typhoid Mary" for the AIDS crisis through a systematic misrepresentation of both scientific and anecdotal data. Though the CDC's study on AIDS transmission was supposedly Shilts' "smoking gun" for naming Dugas as "Patient Zero," the scientists most familiar with the research immediately criticized the claim. In fact, Dr. Harold Jaffe, who worked on the CDC study, called Shilts' claims about Dugas "preposterous."

Still, Shilts' publisher knew a media goldmine when he saw one.

Through interviews with Shilts' publisher Michael Denneny, Tiemeyer uncovers the deliberate decision to feed the American media this fallacious story of a single, promiscuous, homosexual male flight attendant bringing the AIDS virus to the shores of the U.S.  as a way to garner attention for the book and its subject. Shilts and Denneny saw And the Band Played On as an extensive work of investigative journalism, an expose of the AIDS crisis and, in particular, as Denneny explained in an interview for Plane Queer, "a massive attack on the Reagan Administration" and its approach to the AIDS epidemic.

However, as Denneny told Shilts in 1987, "You're not going to get on the Today show with an attack on the Reagan Administration. You're not going to get reviewed in the New York Times.  That's not going to float."

Thus, as Tiemeyer details in Plane Queer, Shilts and Denneny made the decision  to "get their hands dirty," to play to the salacious desires of "yellow journalism," and to deliver the media – and the American public – a scapegoat, in the person of Gaetan Dugas. The plan succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. On October 6, 1987, the New York Post led the way in unleashing a media frenzy with its bold front-page headline proclaiming Dugas as "THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS."

Though it had been discredited by the medical community, Shilts and Denneny succeeded in creating one of the most culturally divisive, politically damaging and scientifically fallacious mistruths of the latter half of the 20th century. In so doing, they unwittingly gave ammunition to politicians such as U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who sought to pass discriminatory legislation targeting those with HIV and limiting critical funding for treatment. The damage done to the cause of AIDS activists - who, after years of struggling, had finally begun making strides in the public arena at the time of the book's publication - was immense.

"This was perhaps the cruelest irony," explains Dr. Tiemeyer, "since both Randy Shilts and Michael Denneny saw this as their goal – expanding the cause of the movement. But they made the fateful decision to run with this false story of a fictitious 'Patient Zero.' And by  continually feeding the media frenzy that they sparked, they provided those in opposition to the AIDS cause with a story that helped embolden just the sort of demonizing and fear-mongering that so many had fought for so long to quell."

Plane Queer, published by the University of California Press, provides a thorough exploration of the science behind the CDC's initial study, the misrepresentations in Shilts' book, the manipulation of the media in its promotion, and a complete debunking of the Patient Zero myth once and for all.

About Plane Queer

In this vibrant new history, Phil Tiemeyer details the history of men working as flight attendants. Beginning with the founding of the profession in the late 1920s and continuing into the post-September 11 era, Plane Queer examines the history of men who joined workplaces customarily identified as female-oriented. It examines the various hardships these men faced at work, paying particular attention to the conflation of gender-based, sexuality-based and AIDS-based discrimination. Tiemeyer also examines how this heavily gay-identified group of workers created an important place for gay men to come out, garner acceptance from their fellow workers, fight homophobia and AIDS phobia, and advocate for LGBT civil rights. All the while, male flight attendants facilitated key breakthroughs in gender-based civil rights law, including an important expansion of the ways that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would protect workers from sex discrimination. Throughout their history, men working as flight attendants helped evolve an industry often identified with American adventuring, technological innovation and economic power into a queer space.

About Philadelphia University

Philadelphia University, founded in 1884, is a private university with 3,600 students enrolled in more than 60 undergraduate and graduate programs. As the model for professional university education, the University prepares students to be leaders in their professions in an active, collaborative and real-world learning environment infused with the liberal arts. Philadelphia University includes the innovative Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce; the College of Architecture and the Built Environment; and the College of Science, Health and the Liberal Arts. For more information, go to

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