Unsung Heroes: Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Doctor and AIDS Warrior

Gay History – Unsung Heroes: Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Doctor and AIDS Warrior

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, was a physician, scientist and HIV/AIDS researcher, notable for pioneering community-based research, the propagation of safe sex to prevent infection, and an early multi-factorial model of the AIDS virus.

In 1978 Dr. Sonnabend started a private clinic for sexually transmitted infections in Greenwich Village, NYC for which he was renowned and was one of the first physicians to notice among his gay male patients the immune deficiency that would later be named AIDS, during the 1980’s and 1990’s he treated hundreds of HIV-positive people.

Prior to the identification of HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1984, Sonnabend’s investigations led him to propose that AIDS among gay men might be caused by multiple factors including the Epstein–Barr virus and repeated exposure to cytomegalovirus and semen. This suggestion conflicted with the prevailing view that a single agent was likely responsible.

Sonnabend’s “multifactorial model” led him to argue early in the emerging pandemic that frequent unprotected anal sex increased the risk of what would come to be known as AIDS. Later, Sonnabend’s advice regarding condoms would be accepted as fundamental to HIV prevention.

In 1983 New York State sued a West 12th Street co-op for trying to evict Dr. Joseph Sonnabend for treating AIDS patients because fellow tenents were “afraid” of the disease and his patients. Sonnabend would later be awarded $10,000 and a new lease.

During the height of the AIDS crisis, Sonnabend helped create several AIDS organizations, including the AIDS Medical Foundation (now amfAR),  the nonprofit Community Research Initiative (now ACRIA),] which pioneered community-based research, and the PWA Health Group, the first and largest formally recognized AIDS drugs buyers’ club.

Sonnabend was renowned for protecting and promoting patients’ rights. He did not shy away from criticizing the scientific establishment when he felt it was failing to put patients’ interests first. He often disagreed with mainstream opinion on AIDS

Sonnabend became a prominent critic of the use of AZT  to treat asymptomatic, HIV-positive people, which he thought was based on insufficient clinical evidence. Nevertheless, he did prescribe the drug in short courses for people with indications of elevated interferon, which he believed might play an important role in pathogenesis and could be controlled by AZT. In 2006 he expressed his view that high doses of AZT had “killed thousands” during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Despite his unconventional and often controversial opinions, mainstream AIDS researchers have in recent years become less critical of Sonnabend, recognizing his devotion as a physician and patients’ champion. According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

“He is one of the true soldiers in the war against HIV. He is a model for a real translation of care to the patient. In terms of the controversy surrounding his work, I think, in general, at the end of the day, most would agree that his contributions have been positive. He is an outstanding man.”

In 2000, he was recognized as an inaugural Award of Courage Honoree by amfAR:

“Joseph Sonnabend, M.D., made Olympian contributions to the fight against AIDS during years when this was a lonely and thankless endeavor. He designed community-based clinical trials when there were few precedents for such research, and he displayed ethical and professional leadership in virtually every other AIDS-related field of action”

In 2005, Joseph Sonnabend retired from medical practice and moved to London.  On World AIDS Day that year, he was awarded a Red Ribbon Leadership Award from the National HIV/AIDS Partnership.



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