By Vanessa Vieites
In the early 1980s, well before he started his second career as a professor of public health in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, William Darrow was a social scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There he was tasked with figuring out why men in Los Angeles were dying of an unknown disease. In the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, Darrow and other researchers worked tirelessly to find out whether AIDS was, as they had hypothesized, a sexually transmitted disease.
“We wanted to find out the cause of AIDS so that maybe we could do something about it,” Darrow said. “It was either genetic, an environmental toxin or a pathologic agent. So, we did a series of investigations to try to figure out which one was right.”
Today, few people recognize AIDS as the number one public health crisis it was in the early 1980s, when misinformation about the disease and who was responsible for spreading it ran rampant. A few years after HIV had been discovered, a French-Canadian male flight attendant was erroneously believed to be responsible for bringing HIV to North America.
The man died of AIDS in 1984, but his notoriety lived on, with one media headline even declaring him “The Man Who Gave Us Aids.” This, however, stemmed from a simple misreading of Darrow’s use of the letter ‘O’ when labeling a study’s patient.
“[Patient Zero] wasn’t the first AIDS patient, and we never intended for anybody to believe that he was,” Darrow clarified. Upon interviewing several AIDS patients in Los Angeles about their sexual histories, Darrow discovered that a few of them had been previously involved with the same man.
“We labeled these cases, not by their names, but by LA1, LA2, LA3-for Los Angeles cases, and we had a case that was not from Los Angeles. I initially referred to him as ‘Patient O’ for ‘Outside of California.’ It had nothing to do with the first case,” Darrow explained. “Somebody read that letter O as the number zero and said, ‘this guy must’ve been the beginning of it.'”
At the time, Darrow cautioned against naming “Patient Zero” in the media, fearing it would put a face to the disease, thereby creating a scapegoat for it. He has since appeared in several documentaries about the early years of AIDS, including the 2019 film Killing Patient Zero, in which he shares his insights and expertise to help clear the name of the infamous patient.
To commemorate World AIDS Day, FIU MMC screened Killing Patient Zero on Monday, Dec. 2.
“It’s joyous that his memory was able to be redeemed. I hope this movie shows that HIV stigma is still alive and it’s up to us to change that in our community,” remarked Alex Arevalo, a master of public health student, after watching the film.
Today, Darrow educates students on the history and foundation of public health as well as the principles of planning, designing and carrying out health promotion programs. In addition, he conducts archival research with doctoral students on the prevention (or lack thereof) of sexually transmitted diseases during the pre- and early-AIDS years.
“Instead of going out and collecting fresh data, I’ve given [my students] records I’ve collected throughout my career to see if they can make sense of them,” said Darrow. “What I did then was that I tried to define the field of the social and behavioral aspects of sexually transmitted diseases.”