While many people may not know his name, Gaëtan Dugas, a gay, Canadian flight attendant, has been seen as one of the most central figures involved in the story of how HIV/AIDS came to the United States, spread throughout the country, and killed millions in the process.
But a newly published study has almost entirely overturned what everyone thought they knew about Dugas and the early history of the disease.
In 1984, the CDC published an in-depth study in the American Journal of Medicine that purported to trace the transmission patterns of the HIV virus by analyzing the sexual habits of gay and bisexual men living in a number of major metropolitan cities on both the east and the west coasts.
Dugas frequently traveled between the coasts due to his job, and the CDC’s early analysis found that he was directly connected to a robust network of men who’d had sex with one another and eventually become HIV positive. The study characterized Dugas as sexually irresponsible and promiscuous, playing on sex-negative stereotypes about gay men and feeding into the dangerous, incorrect idea that HIV and AIDS were a “gay disease.” It also dubbed him “Patient Zero”—the central person responsible for first contracting and then spreading the virus.
But it was And The Band Played On, the seminal 1987 history of the discovery and impact of HIV/AIDS by journalist Randy Shilts, which fully cemented the idea of Dugas as Patient Zero in the public mind.
“Whether Gaëtan Dugas actually was the person who brought AIDS to North America remains a question of debate and is ultimately unanswerable,” Shilts wrote. “There’s no doubt that Gaëtan played a key role in spreading the new virus from one end of the United States to the other.”