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Joseph Sonnabend, Doctor, Researcher, and Safer Sex Pioneer, Has Died

Joseph Sonnabend

Sonnabend, one of the first physicians to treat people with AIDS, was a cofounder of amfAR.

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, an AIDS physician and researcher who pioneered the use of safer sex practices, has died at age 88.

Sonnabend died Sunday at a hospital in London of complications of a heart attack, The Washington Post reports.

He had been involved with AIDS “as a laboratory scientist, as a physician, as a clinical researcher, as a community activist, and as a sexually active gay man,” he recalled at an amfAR event in 2000, where he received an award from the organization, which he helped found in 1983.

Sonnabend was born in South Africa and received his medical training there and in England. He practiced medicine in the U.K. before moving to the U.S., becoming a professor at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City in 1969. He also worked for the city health department, where he was involved in efforts to reduce sexually transmitted infections in gay men, and volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Project in Greenwich Village.

He set up his own practice in the Village in 1977, and when a new infection began to emerge among gay and bisexual men a few years later, he was at the forefront of treating it. “I was seeing kinds of morbidity amongst sexually active young gay men that could not be adequately accounted for,” he said at the amfAR event.

Since he had experience in both treating people with AIDS and doing medical research, he was well suited to doing research on the disease. He was sometimes controversial — he once theorized that AIDS was not due to HIV alone but to other STIs, but he eventually recognized that what he called his “multifactorial model” was wrong.

In the early 1980s, he advised activists Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, both of whom he had been his patients, as the two authored a booklet encouraging gay and bi men to adopt safer sex practices, including the use of condoms. That recommendation diverged from a popular opinion that limiting the number of sexual partners was the best way to avoid infection, but it proved groundbreaking, the Los Angeles Blade notes.

He was also known for treating patients whether or not they could pay him; founding and editing the journal AIDS Research, the first peer-reviewed publication on the disease; pushing for the use of Bactrim to prevent Pneumocystis pneumonia, which was once the leading cause of death for people with AIDS; establishing the world’s first “buyers’ club” for AIDS drugs; advocating for patient confidentiality, which led New York State to adopt the nation’s first law protecting confidentiality for people with AIDS; and bringing the first AIDS-related civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. — his landlord had tried to evict him for treating patients with the disease.

Sonnabend always supported the rights of people with AIDS and encouraged them to be assertive about their health care. Also, as new drugs enabled people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives and often never progress to an AIDS diagnosis, he taught them how to live, his patients recalled.

He retired in 2005 and moved to London. In retirement, he composed classical music; the first public performance of his work came in 2018 at London’s AIDS Histories and Cultural Festival.

His survivors include two sons.

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