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Pioneering HIV researcher Dr Joseph Sonnabend dies aged 88 – OUTInPerth | LGBTQIA+ News and Culture | OUTInPerth

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Pioneering HIV researcher, physician, and author Dr Joseph Sonnabend has died in London aged 88.

Born in South Africa, he grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before retuning to South Africa to study infectious diseases at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He continued his education at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the 1960’s he worked in London under Alick Isaacs, the co-discoverer of interferons, a group of signaling proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of several viruses. In the 1970’s he relocated to New York to continue his research at the Mt Sinai School of Medicine.

While serving as the Director of Continuing Medical Education at the Bureau of Venereal Disease Control within the New York City Department of Health he advocated for more resources to be directed towards gay men’s health, particularly sexually transmitted diseases.

In the late 1970’s he volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health project which was based in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, he came to notice an increasing number of gay men were appearing with similar symptoms that could not be explained. In 1981 he alerted authorities to the growing number of gay men appearing with a rare cancer, Karposi’s sarcoma

He conducted some of the earliest research into what is now known to be HIV, and was a founding member of the AIDS Medical Foundation, which continues today as amfAR.

In 1983 he co-edited the first peer reviewed medical journal to focus on HIV, a role he continued until 1986. He also pioneered the practice of community based clinical research in tackling the AIDS crisis.

Dr Sonnabend was also an advocate for his patients rights, he highlighted how fear of HIV was leading to people being evicted from the homes and fired from their employment. His activism lead to the City of New York introducing laws to protect people’s confidentiality and he successfully sued who own landlord who attempted to evict his clinic from their building.

Alongside two of his patients Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, he created a landmark booklet How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.

At times Dr Sonnabend had disagreements with the gay community, he advocated for gay men to change their sexual behaviour to avoid any possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. At the time the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York suggest gay men should focus on limiting the number of partners they had.

He also proposed a theory that AIDS was caused by repeated assaults on a person’s immune system, suggesting that exposure to different viruses and semen could be the trigger for the disease. In 1984 when HIV was discovered his theories proved not to be true.

In 2005 he retired from his practice and moved to London to care for his ailing sister. There journey was captured in the documentary Some Kind of Love. 

Throughout his career Dr Sonnabend found solace in playing and writing music for the piano, in 2018 he at the 85 he made his debut as a classical composer with a concert in London as part of the AIDS histories and culture festival.

On January 3rd 2021 Dr Sonnabend suffered a heart attach, he passed away on January 24th.

OIP Staff


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