Joel Weisman: Physician who alerted the world to the Aids virus
Tuesday 04 August 2009
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.
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