Telling the Story of a Scourge

By Paige Parvin 96G

If a disease has a life of its own, Victoria Harden 66C 83PhD has written a biography—and a memoir, of sorts.

AIDS at 30: A History, published last year, traces the epidemic from its chill beginnings in 1981 through the global devastation that continues today; more than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, and the death toll is incalculable.

Few people are better qualified to take on such a project than Harden, a medical historian who began work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1984 and two years later became the founding director of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum. In that role, for the next twenty years, she led the documentation of HIV/AIDS history and progression in lockstep with the advance of the disease itself.

“As a historian, I wondered who was collecting materials such as the AIDS Memorandum [newsletter] and conducting interviews with scientists working on AIDS, and I found out that no formal historical processes existed at NIH,” Harden writes in the preface to the book. “Here was a new disease, key investigators working around me, important discoveries going on, and no one was capturing this? It seemed a dereliction of duty for a historian not to make some sort of attempt to document what was occurring.”

Writing for the lay reader, Harden begins with how AIDS got its name and forges on from there, veering between the highly scientific—how the virus works, the speedy development of the drugs that treat it—and the social and political issues at play. She notes the rise of the AIDS activist movement and the critical role of the media. And she quotes several Emory community members, including James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health, and Laura Douglas-Brown 95C 95G, longtime Atlanta journalist for the gay press.

Harden retired from the NIH in 2006, the same year she was awarded the Herbert Feis prize for outstanding contributions to public history by the American Historical Association.

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