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“it Was Like Nothing In Medical History

MORE THAN TWO DECADES AGO AN UNPRECEDENTED GLOBAL medical crisis began. Mysterious, deadly, and unexpected, an epidemic with an unknown cause started to claim victims in odd, seemingly unrelated groups. Gay men. Intravenous drug abusers. Africans. Haitians. Hemophiliacs. As the list grew, physicians worldwide slowly realized they were facing a truly new and powerful enemy.

Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier provided the first important victories in the high-stakes war against what we now call AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Leading independent groups in the United States and France, they each linked the disease to a new contagion, which they named HIV (for human immunodeficiency virus). Then, in a move vital to diagnosing new infections—and protecting the blood supply—they developed a test to detect the presence of HIV.

They also endured a level of scrutiny and criticism seldom seen in the history of medicine. Gay activists accused the medical establishment of moving too slowly, while some religious leaders countered that AIDS was a divine act intended to punish homosexuals. Allegations of unseemly competition between Gallo and Montagnier provoked especially harsh criticism, receiving close inspection in the best-selling book by Randy Shuts And the Band Played On , which was made into a popular television movie in 1993. (Gallo was portrayed by the actor Alan Aida; Montagnier, by Patrick Bauchau.)

These days Gallo and Montagnier are completely supportive of each other’s work, a fact they stressed in the impassioned acceptance speeches they made when they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on May 1, 2004. Luc Montagnier was born August 18,1932, in Chabris, France. He received his medical degree from the University of Paris in 1960 and then did a series of postdoctoral research fellowships in France and the United Kingdom. He was head of the viral oncology department at the Pasteur Institute when he did his first work on AIDS. In 1993 he cofounded the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention. Robert Gallo was born March 23, 1937, in Waterbury, Connecticut. He received his M.D. from the Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1963, and he became a cancer researcher for the National Institutes of Health in Chicago after completing his residency in 1965. He is currently director of the Institute of Human Virology and Division of Basic Science at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore. They spoke about their careers while in Akron for the induction ceremony.

How did you become interested in medicine?

 

Luc Montagnier: I was always fascinated by science. When I was 15, I tried to set up a chemistry lab in the cellar of my parents’ house, and I knew some chemistry before I studied it at school. After that I was mostly fascinated by atomic energy, by 1945 and everything about atomic physics. But I realized that I should go more to the medical side of science because for physics I would need math, and I wasn’t good at math. So I shifted to medicine, and I started my medical study at the University of Paris. I went into research, working first on algae. I thought viruses were easier to work with than complex animals, so I decided to learn more about viruses. I went to Britain in 1960, spent three years near London and half a year in Scotland, and I learned a lot. I was able to make my first discovery, the discovery of the RNA double helix made by certain viruses like the polio virus. I came back to France and tried to apply what I had learned to viruses that cause cancer. At the time, the idea was that many cancers could be caused by viruses. I moved to the Pasteur Institute in 1972 to work on that.

Robert Gallo: I know precisely when I became interested in medicine, because my interest didn’t come out of any native curiosity about science. When I was 13,1 had an immensely powerful experience. My only sibling died a horrible death of leukemia. She was hospitalized at Harvard’s Children’s Hospital, and I saw medical research scientists for the first time. I saw her life extended by her being one of the first persons ever to receive chemotherapy, and that chemotherapy was with 6-mercaptopurine, which was invented by Gertrude Elion, a 1991 inductee.

In my last year in high school I fractured my back playing basketball. That was the last year practically everything in my brain was basketball. I was forced to reflect, and I had plenty of time to do so. My father had developed a close friendship with my sister’s pathologist, who became my friend. He was a very positive influence in nurturing young people heading toward careers in medicine or medical science.

How did you first hear about what we now call AIDS?