History with a Southern Accent

Psychiatrist and AIDS activist Jesse Peel donates his papers to MARBL

Jesse Peel lost his first friend to AIDS in 1986. For years he kept track of AIDS-related deaths among friends, colleagues, and patients. When he got to 100, he stopped.

Bryan Meltz

Beginning in 1969, psychiatrist Jesse Peel recorded letters from his wartime medical posts in Vietnam and Okinawa and sent them to his parents in North Carolina. By the time he returned to the United States a year later, he had mailed more than eighty reels recounting his daily life during the war: the foul weather and bad food, local geography, care packages he received, his need for an electric blanket, his hopes for a vacation.

These recordings, a living historical account, are now part of a growing collection in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) documenting the lives of LGBT people in the South.

Peel moved to Atlanta in 1976, joined a large group practice, and eventually became one of the city’s most determined AIDS activists. He has donated his papers—the Vietnam War recordings as well as materials concerning his life and the AIDS crisis as it unfolded in Atlanta—to help MARBL build a strong LGBT archive.

Says Randy Gue 93C 94G 97G, curator of modern political and historical collections, “We recognize the value of these materials and these stories. They’re central to the history of modern Atlanta. I hope that in ten years, MARBL’s LGBT collections will rival our African American collections for documenting the history of social justice movements in America.”

The Peel papers also include appointment books, AIDS research files, photographs, letters, and journals from 1955 through 2010.

“He has a remarkably well-documented life,” Gue says.

The journals, both published and donated in their original handwritten form, are titled The Camp Merton Chronicles, a reference to the affectionate name for Peel’s home on Atlanta’s Merton Road—a social hub for nearly four decades.

As the epidemic hit Atlanta, Peel served on the board of AID Atlanta and the Georgia Task Force on AIDS, held fund-raisers, and helped found the agency Positive Impact. HIV-positive himself, he expected to die shortly after receiving his test results in 1988. He turned seventy-three in March.

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