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Imagining Patient Zero: Sexuality, Blame, and Patient's View History in the Early North American AIDS Epidemic

The story of a "promiscuous", gay, French-Canadian flight attendant bringing AIDS to the United States and becoming "Patient Zero" of the American epidemic is often recounted, particularly in North America. Much of the literature dealing with this notorious figure follows the lead of Randy Shilts, a San Francisco journalist.

Shilts's influential popular history, And the Band Played On, publicly identified the flight attendant in question as Gaétan Dugas, and portrayed him as a cold-blooded, recalcitrant disease disseminator.

The rich historical record, however, offers the possibility of a more nuanced understanding of the man and his alleged role in the early North American epidemic. Medical authorities have long dismissed suggestions that Dugas was the original case of AIDS in North America, responsible for the introduction of the disease. Yet the "Patient Zero" story caught the public imagination and spread far beyond its original American epidemiologic setting, living on in media discussions, legal discourse, and popular speech. Richard McKay's research draws on archival material and oral history interviews to understand these legacies, offering insight into how societies respond to the threat of deadly epidemics.