Joel Weisman: Physician who alerted the world to the Aids virus

Dr Joel D Weisman, a brilliant and compassionate general practitioner and pioneer in HIV/Aids care and research, died at his home in Los Angeles, California on 18 July. He was 66. He had been suffering from heart disease and was being looked after by his partner of 17 years, the singer and actor Bill Hutton.

In 1978 in North Hollywood, Weisman had been noticing some vexing symptoms in some patients – skin cancers that would normally afflict an older age group, and some patients with swollen lymph glands, often an indication of lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the immune system. In 1980, after Weisman expanded his practice in Sherman Oaks with Dr Eugene Rogolsky, alarm bells started to ring when he observed that several gay male patients of his had similar symptoms of pneumonia, as well as serious ailments ranging from persistent diarrhoea and fungal infections to low white blood cell counts.

In 1981 Weisman was put in touch with the immunologist Dr Michael Gottlieb at UCLA Medical Centre, who also had a patient with similarly unusual symptoms. The two doctors collated their observations and came to the conclusion that something not seen before was happening. They wrote the seminal report that signalled the official start of the Aids epidemic and which sounded an alarm which was heard around the world. Aids deaths in the US rose exponentially, from 618 in 1982 to almost 90,000 by the end of the decade. By 2002, the death toll, still climbing, passed 500,000.

"I had a feeling that what this represented was the tip of the iceberg," Weisman told the Washington Post two decades later in 2001. "My sense was that these people were sick and we had a lot of people that were potentially right behind them."

On top of these early referral cases, the journalist and author Randy Shilts noted in his Aids chronicle And the Band Played On (1987), "another 20 men had appeared at Weisman's office that year with strange abnormalities of their lymph nodes" – the very condition that had triggered the spiral of ailments besetting Weisman and Rogolsky's original, very sick patients.

Weisman pressed for services for people with HIV and Aids as founding chairman of Aids Project Los Angeles in 1983. He advocated for research dollars as an original board member of amfAR, which was formed in 1985, and served as its chairman from 1988 to 1992.

Described by Shilts as "the dean of Southern California gay doctors", Weisman was loved and respected by patients and colleagues alike. He continued to see patients, building his partnership with Rogolsky at what is now Sherman Oaks Hospital and Health Center, one of the largest private practices in Southern California for the treatment of Aids and HIV.

As soon as he became convinced that Aids was sexually transmitted, Weisman began to urge patients to change their sexual behaviour. But during the early years of the crisis, his warnings were too often ignored. "I couldn't even make some of my friends listen, and they're dead now and that's disconcerting," he told The New York Times in 1988. Among the casualties was his partner of 10 years, Timothy Bogue, who died in 1991.

Battling the epidemic on the front lines "made me look at issues of death and dying in a very different way," he said in 1988. "What makes somebody a good physician in this situation? Is it just winning? Keeping people alive? If I looked at every death as a defeat, I would not be able to continue." In 1997, he stepped away from the front line, just as new drug cocktails were extending the lives of Aids patients.

In 2000, he moved to upstate New York, where he ran an inn with Hutton. They returned to Southern California five years ago where he remained an active ambassador for Aids Project Los Angeles until illness overtook him this year.

My wife and I got to know Joel in 1993 when he walked into The Redfern Gallery and bought several paintings of mine for his beach house in Malibu. He and Bill also made a studio visit to the East End of London, when, much to my dealer's annoyance, I refused to part with a painting they liked which I didn't think was good enough.

This episode cemented a bond between us and we were asked to stay in their beautiful modernist house in Beverly Hills. For a youngish artist it was an intoxicating experience. Joel became like an uncle and over the next 15 years his passion for the theatre meant that he would come and visit and regularly take us and our children to plays and musicals in the West End, some of which he had part funded.

In addition to Bill Hutton, Joel Weisman is survived by his brother Mark, his daughter Stacey Weisman-Bogue Foster, his granddaughter, and two nieces. He was a wonderful man.

Joel Weisman, physician and advocate for Aids research: born Newark, New Jersey 20 February 1943; died Los Angeles, California 18 July 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003