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Gay History – May 18, 1981: Dr. Lawrence Mass Becomes The First Person To Report About AIDS

 

While many believe that June 5, 1981 is the date of the first published report about the deadly disease which would later be called AIDS by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles who died from rare infections which were normally easily curable . The first actual published mention appeared in a New York City’s gay newspaper The New York Native three weeks earlier by Dr, Lawrence Mass.

Mass, who wrote a regular health column for the small weekly, had heard rumors of a new disease striking down gay men in New York City.  Some were coming down with a rare kind of a skin cancer that had previously only affected the elderly living in Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern regions called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Others victims were stricken with a rare form of pneumonia which typically only appeared in people with severely suppressed immune systems such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and transplant recipients. There were also a host of other odd diseases that gay men were coming down with, but so far nobody had figured out that there might be a single cause to link them all together.

After Mass was assured by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that there was no evidence of an emerging “gay cancer,” Mass wrote an article titled, “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded,” which began:

Last week there were rumors that an exotic new disease had hit the gay community in New York. Here are the facts. From the New York City Department of Health, Dr. Steve Phillips explained that the rumors are for the most part unfounded. Each year, approximately 12 to 24 cases of infection with a protozoa-like organism, pneumocystis carinii, are reported in the New York City area. The organism is not exotic; in fact, it’s ubiquitous. But most of us have a natural or easily acquired immunity.

“What’s unusual about the cases reported this year, is that eleven of them were not obviously compromised hosts. The possibility there exists that a new, more virulent strain of the organism may have been ‘community acquired.’” But Mass reported that there was not enough evidence (yet) to make a clear connection between the new disease and the gay community

But the CDC was wrong and it wouldn’t be long before that link was made.  

Mass followed up on his original article in July 1981 with, “Cancer in the Gay Community,” on the then-new HIV/AIDS epidemic. Chroniclers of the AIDS crisis now recognize Dr. Mass as being the first to write about the emerging epidemic in print. Dr. Mass went on the help found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and was the principle author of the organization’s Medical Answers About AIDS through four revisions spanning ten years.

Dr. Lawrence Mass still works as a physician in New York City, where he resides with his life partner, writer and activist Arnie Kantrowitz.

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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