Largely Unknown, Bruce Hillman is the Man Who Discovered AIDS

Written by | Books, Entertainment

A look at sacrifices made in the name of science.

By Madison Gulbin


Bruce J. Hillman’s A Plague on All Our Houses starts as patients all over Los Angles are being referred to immunology specialist Dr. Michael Gottlieb. As he accumulates data, Gottlieb puzzles over why their immune systems are simply not functioning; he searches futilely for an answer — until he realizes the answer could only be a previously undiscovered disease.

The book offers little-remembered details about this time period. Because one patient was overheard saying, “The doctors here tell me I am one sick queen,” the condition was referred to early on as: “Sick Queen Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or SQIDS, which later morphed into “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID) before it was discovered that people of any sexual orientation could contract the disease.

The discovery of AIDS was the defining moment of Gottlieb’s career. He was invited to speak on panels all over the world and considered an expert in the disease at a time when little was known about it. He gained a degree of celebrity as the personal physician to Rock Hudson, the world’s best-known AIDS patient. With Elizabeth Taylor, Gottleib cofounded the charitable foundation amfAR, which advanced public awareness of AIDS and raised vast sums for research.

But Gottleib also did some suffering of his own as the study of HIV took over his life. His relationships with his soon-to-be ex-wife and co-workers deteriorated. UCLA denied him promotion and tenure — forcing him to leave for private practice even as the National Institutes of Health awarded the university a $10 million grant for work he had pioneered.

Houses reads easily — more like a medical mystery thriller than a textbook. But it’s an important document that commends unsung heroes of the epidemic’s earliest days and revisits many of the mistakes that were made along the way.

Last modified: December 6, 2017