ORIGIN STORY

The Myth Of “Patient Zero” Is Finally Laid To Rest

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Thirty-two years after his death in 1984, Gaétan Dugas remains a legendary figure in the story of the AIDS epidemic. For years, he occupied a space in the popular imagination as the man who brought the virus to the U.S. But as the New York Times reports, yesterday the the myth of “Patient Zero” was finally laid to rest.

“The strain of H.I.V. responsible for almost all AIDS cases in the United States, which was carried from Zaire to Haiti around 1967, spread from there to New York City around 1971, researchers concluded in the journal Nature. From New York, it spread to San Francisco around 1976,” according to the Times. “The new analysis shows that Mr. Dugas’s blood, sampled in 1983, contained a viral strain already infecting men in New York before he began visiting gay bars here after being hired by Air Canada in 1974.”

Dugas became a figure of myth thanks in part to journalist Randy Shilts’s influential 1987 book And The Band Played On, in which Shilts painted Dugas as a beautiful and callous blonde French Canadian libertine, a flight attendant who traveled from city to city carelessly and knowingly infecting his sexual partners–Dugas himself boasted of sleeping with over 200 men each year–with what was then called “gay cancer.” Shilts, who died in 1994, himself admitted that his publishers sensationalized “Patient Zero” to drum up publicity for the book.

But even Dugas’s designation as “Patient Zero” seems to have been an exaggeration. Dugas was initially designated “Patient O,” as in “outside Southern California,” the capital letter O eventually being misread as the number zero.

Meanwhile, according to one of the Nature paper’s authors, Dugas’s friends described a very different, more sympathetic man–descriptions that were absent from Shilts’s account.