Intended for healthcare professionals


Joseph Sonnabend: the first AIDS doctor

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 11 February 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n410
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC, USA
  1. bobroehr{at}
Photo credit: Simon Watney

Joseph Sonnabend was the world’s first AIDS doctor. He never made that claim, and perhaps it wasn’t quite literally true, but fate placed him in New York City immediately before the start of the epidemic, where his training as a researcher gave him tools that others lacked, and his compassion created a loyal patient following. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, familiar with but not dependent on the hidebound strictures of the medical establishment, comfortable in the role of an outsider.

Early life and career

He was born in Johannesburg when racial discrimination had not yet been codified into the laws of apartheid (1948), and grew up in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where his mother was a physician and his father a university professor of psychology and sociology. He returned to Johannesburg for education at the University of the Witwatersrand (1956), then on to the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh (1961), where he trained in infectious diseases.

Sonnabend pursued research rather than clinical care, working at the National Institute of Medical Research in the laboratory of Alick Isaacs, the co-discoverer of interferon. Isaacs’s unexpected death from a brain haemorrhage at age 45 probably contributed to Sonnabend’s decision to accept a research position at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and move to New York City in 1969. The city was at its gritty nadir; homosexual activity was still illegal and discrimination rampant. But the Stonewall riots that year marked the start of a modern gay era and drew many young men who wished to live as …

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