Donald Acheson

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 22 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c419
  1. Sally Sheard, senior lecturer in history of medicine
  1. 1University of Liverpool

    Former English chief medical officer who fought to contain the new AIDS epidemic

    On appointment as chief medical officer (CMO) for England, Sir Donald Acheson’s sense of personal authority and status gained him access to government ministers that some of his predecessors had not dared ask for. It proved critical to his success in dealing with a key medical problem of the late 20th century—AIDS. There were only 28 cases in the United Kingdom in 1983, but the news from the United States was frightening. Acheson’s passionate conviction that this epidemic must be quashed before it could take hold was one of his strengths in persuading the government and his colleagues to take it seriously. At his request the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, established a cabinet committee through which Acheson could orchestrate a scientifically informed response—one that jarred at times with the UK’s conservative culture.

    A national media campaign of unprecedented proportions was launched to explode the myths on how the disease was transmitted. “AIDSDON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE” leaflets were delivered to 23 million homes. A week in February 1987 incorporated 19 hours of public service broadcasting across all four television channels. Harm minimisation was the underlying message: safe sex rather than no sex. Acheson was successful in getting ministers to drop plans for compulsory testing and to turn a blind eye to illegal drug use, allowing needle exchanges for drug users in the interests of wider public health.

    Explicit television interview

    Acheson “ate and slept AIDS from 1985 onwards,” determined to take every precautionary measure possible to halt the spread of the disease, from working as an intermediary between the gay community and the medical profession, to meeting with the English Collective of Prostitutes. Despite his Calvinistic upbringing he ensured that he knew the facts of gay sex and …

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