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Joseph Sonnabend (1933–2021), pioneering AIDS doctor

by Linnea Crowther

Joseph Sonnabend was a physician who was one of the first to notice symptoms in his patients that would later be identified as HIV/AIDS.

Battling an epidemic with compassion

A native of South Africa, Sonnabend studied in London and later came to the U.S. to practice medicine. He had been working with gay men at a Greenwich Village clinic for several years before opening his own practice in that same neighborhood. There, he provided compassionate medical care for gay men, who often had trouble finding unbiased doctors in those days. As Sonnabend treated his primarily gay patients, he began to notice an outbreak of unusual diseases and deaths among young, previously healthy men who were sexually active.

One of the first to start working to put the pieces together to identify HIV/AIDS, Sonnabend co-founded the Foundation for AIDS Research and helped run community-based clinical trials. He was also a vocal advocate for protected sex, insisting that it would help his patients who were resistant to suggestions of celibacy or limiting their number of partners. It was a controversial notion at the time, but it eventually became the standard in the gay community and beyond. In addition to recommending protected sex to his patients, Sonnabend consulted on the pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach,” which was widely distributed among the gay community. Sonnabend was also controversial within the medical establishment for challenging some prevailing ideas about AIDS’ causes and how best to treat AIDS. Beloved by his patients, Sonnabend helped keep many alive despite their HIV infections.

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Sonnabend on the future of AIDS

“The epidemic’s demographics are shifting. I fear that AIDS is going to become the disease of the inner cities and invisible to the rest of the world and we won’t really care because it’s about the problems of black, Hispanic and poor people. Traditionally, their health concerns have not been anybody’s concern.” —from a 1998 interview with POZ

Tributes to Joseph Sonnabend

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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