Many believe that the New York Times article of July 3, 1981, was the date of the first newspaper-published report about the deadly disease which would later be called AIDS by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But actually, the first published report that mentions the mysterious and deadly disease appeared in New York City’s independent 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 skin cancer that had previously only affected the elderly living in the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and Middle Eastern regions called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Other 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.
Later Dr. 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 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 they realized that and a link was made.
Mass followed up on his original article in July 1981 with a piece called, “Cancer in the Gay Community,” on the then-new HIV/AIDS epidemic. Chroniclers of the AIDS crisis now recognize Dr. Lawrence Mass as being the first to write about the emerging epidemic in print.
In 1982, Mass joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in co-founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first and still largest AIDS information and service organization. For 10 years and through four revisions, Mass authored GMHC’s guide, Medical Answers About AIDS, which usually concluded with an appeal for civil liberties for sexual minority persons and the sanctioning of same-sex relationships as “essential considerations in the preventive medicine of AIDS.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Mass extended his public health interests to the bear subculture of the gay community. He has addressed in a regular column a range of health topics of interest to this subculture, initially consisting of middle-aged overweight men, first for American Bear Magazine and later for A Bear’s Life magazine.
Dr. Lawrence Mass still works as an internist physician in New York City, where he resides with his life partner, writer, and activist Arnie Kantrowitz.
The papers of Mass and Kantrowitz are designated for deposit with the New York Public Library.