In Memoriam

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, 1933–2021

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, 2014. Photo by Simon Watney

Renowned AIDS researcher and clinician Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, one of the first U.S. physicians to recognize the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, died on January 24, 2021, in London, after suffering a heart attack. He was eighty-eight years old.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and raised in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Sonnabend trained in infectious diseases at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. In the 1960s, he worked with the co-discoverer of interferons. He moved to New York City in the 1970s to continue interferon research at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. As Director of Medical Education in NYC’s Department of Health, he urged colleagues to focus on gay men’s health.

In 1978, Dr. Sonnabend volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Project in Greenwich Village and started his own clinic for treating STIs. Although he provoked the anger of many in the gay community when he suggested that they should change their sexual habits, he earned a reputation as a dedicated, compassionate clinician, willing to see patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay, eliciting fierce loyalty and respect from his patients. Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine and a former patient of Dr. Sonnabend, said in a profile of the doctor in 1998, “Joe’s patients are protective of him. Those of us with insurance remind him to send out bills; those without often helped in his office, cooked him dinner or volunteered with the organizations Joe started.”

He continued his research into AIDS, working outside government agencies that he considered too slow and cumbersome. He helped to create the Community Research Initiative (now ACRIA) and other community-based organizations. He cofounded the PWA Health Group, the first “buyer’s club” for AIDS patients to obtain unapproved medications. In 1983 he launched and edited the first professional peer-reviewed publication focused on AIDS, AIDS Research.

March 14, 1983 • AIDS pioneers (left to right): Michael Callen, Dr. Mathilde Krim, and Dr. Sonnabend. Photo by Peter Serling

In collaboration with Dr. Mathilde Krim, activist Michael Callen, and others, he founded the AIDS Medical Foundation, which would combine efforts with Elizabeth Taylor’s National AIDS Research Foundation to form amfAR in 1985. He resigned from amfAR’s Scientific Advisory Committee in 1985 in protest of what he considered the organization’s over-emphasizing heterosexual female-to-male HIV transmission for the sake of fundraising. Still, in 2000, amfAR recognized Dr. Sonnabend with its first Award of Courage.

Regarding the early days of AIDS research and treatment, Dr. Sonnabend told POZ Magazine in 1998, “The other doctors who were treating AIDS didn’t have the research experience or the instincts or the colleagues. I’m not putting them down. They were just doctors with patients. And the academic researchers—the top immunologists, virologists and so on—who had the expertise, didn’t have the patients. I had both the background and the patients… I had patients who liked me, who were willing to give me blood, who would participate in anything.”

From the earliest days of the epidemic, Dr. Sonnabend passionately defended the rights of people living with AIDS. One result of his activism was getting the New York Legislature to adopt confidentiality protections for PLHIV. He filed the first AIDS-related civil rights lawsuit against his landlord, who tried to evict him for treating AIDS patients in his office. He encouraged PLHIV to speak and advocate for themselves instead of relying on government agencies. He provided guidance to three of his patients, Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz, and Richard Dworkin, who pioneered the life-saving concept of “safer sex” in their booklet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.

Spring, 1993: West Village (left to right) Dr. Sonnabend, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz; photo by Richard Dworkin

Before HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS in 1984, Dr. Sonnabend had postulated that AIDS might be caused by multiple factors, including Epstein-Barr virus and repeated experience of STIs. After 1984, he acknowledged that HIV alone was enough to cause AIDS; but he continued to believe that repeated assaults on one’s immune system from sexually-transmitted diseases played a role in the progression and severity of HIV infection.

Dr. Sonnabend retired from medical practice in 2005 and moved to London, England where, on World AIDS Day of that year, he was awarded a Red Ribbon Leadership Award from the National HIV/AIDS Partnership.

Writer/filmmaker David France (How to Survive a Plague; Welcome to Chechnya) wrote, “I was always nervous in his presence, always overwhelmed by his intellect and his tendency to anger. I admired him greatly, and presented a loving portrait of him in my book, How to Survive a Plague… There is no way to measure this, but I believe that Joe kept more people with AIDS alive than any other physician in the long fifteen years before the arrival of effective antiretrovirals… an unmatched physician, responding to everyone with urgency….A great and towering figure, a gay man to be emulated, to be honored, and to be celebrated.”

Mr. Strub told A&U, “Joe was my doctor, mentor and dear friend. I would not be alive without him. For me and many other activists, he was the conscience of our movement. I don’t believe there is another HIV clinician in the early years of the epidemic who had a higher rate of success with his patients. There is no one, in my opinion, who has contributed as much to fighting AIDS and supporting PLHIV, and who has been less celebrated, credited, and heralded than Joe Sonnabend. He was the most humanistic and compassionate genius I’ve ever met. I miss him dearly.”

Mr. France may have best summed up the HIV/AIDS community’s sentiment on the passing of Dr. Sonnabend:

“To Joe Sonnabend: Thank you.”

—Hank Trout

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.