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GMHC Honors the Life of Joseph Sonnabend, MD, Pioneer and Hero in the HIV/AIDS Epidemic Jan. 6, 1933 – Jan. 24, 2021

“Compassionate, hopeful, kind, devoted, humane…” These were just some of words described in Jay Blotcher’s obituary about Dr. Sonnabend, who passed away on Jan. 24.

At the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when scores of people were diagnosed or dying of AIDS felt frightened, alone, and abandoned, Dr. Sonnabend was one of the first physicians to see patients, mostly gay men, who had rare forms of PCP [Pneumocystis pneumonia], Kaposi pneumonia, and other infections. In a 1998 POZ magazine interview, he stated, “I realize that I was seeing cases of AIDS-related PCP in the late ’70s. But I first encountered the disease a few months before the first New York Times report in July 1981.”

The first meeting of the six founders (and their friends) of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) occurred in August 1981, and the world’s first AIDS service organization was founded in January 1982.

As a researcher and physician, he reached out to Dr. Mathilde Krim for support in his early research, and their collaboration led him, Dr. Krim, Michael Callen, and a few others, to start the AIDS Medical Foundation, the first AIDS research group in 1985, which evolved into amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. GMHC was then developing its services to address the immediate needs of people living with AIDS, as well as providing whatever educational information that was available to the general public.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Sonnabend’s work to advocate for the rights of his patients was on a parallel track with GMHC’s advocacy work related to protecting the confidentiality of people living with HIV/AIDS, helping to start lawsuits against those who discriminated against people living with AIDS, and collaborating on the development of guidelines on safer sex. He encouraged gay men to change their sexual behaviors to possibly reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections rather than limit the number of sexual partners which GMHC advocated for at that time.

Throughout the 1990s, with his extensive background in community-based clinical research, he helped to launch the Community Research Initiative (which became ACRIA in 1991 and now a part of GMHC as of 2017) and other organizations.

“Dr. Sonnabend, like many long-term AIDS activists and physicians, was a true hero to men and women living with HIV/ AIDS, and those who died of the disease,” said GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie. “He was an exemplary leader in showing people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS must be treated with dignity. All of us have benefited from his outstanding and courageous support, research, and care.“

We send our tender thoughts to his sister and sons, and his extended family of patients, friends, and colleagues.

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