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Kristine Gebbie, the U.S.'s First AIDS Czar, Has Passed at 78

Kristine Gebbie, Country’s First AIDS Czar, Dead at 78
Kristine Gebbie with late husband Lester Nils Wright

The former nurse served in numerous public roles before spearheading the nation’s response to the AIDS crisis.

Kristine Gebbie, a registered nurse and epidemiologist who later served as the country’s first AIDS czar, died May 17 in Adelaide, Australia. Her daughter, Eileen Gebbie, was quoted in the New York Times saying the cause of death was cancer. She was 78.

Gebbie was born Kristine Elizabeth Moore on June 26, 1943, in Sioux City, Iowa. She later attended St. Olaf College where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in 1965, UCLA where she obtained her master’s in community health in 1968, and she later attended the University of Michigan where she obtained her doctorate in public health in 1995.

Before serving as the country’s first AIDS czar in 1993, Gebbie served as Oregon’s state health administrator (1978 to 1989) and the Washington state secretary of health (1989 to 1993). While an opponent of then-President Ronald Reagan’s policies on AIDS testing, she agreed to serve on the President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic after she was personally lobbied by commission chairperson, Adm. James D. Watkins.

“I picked her and she was a great asset to me, especially since we were outnumbered,” Watkins said in 1993 in reference to conservative members on the commission. “She was very tough when there was nonsense coming out of some of the other commissioners. She could carry the day.”

Her time as AIDS czar was controversial and short-lived, however, lasting little more than a year. She was not the first choice for the position, and some activists claimed she did not possess the qualities necessary to battle entrenched bureaucrats and the prevailing homophobic sentiments relating to the issue of AIDS treatment and prevention at the time.

“We needed Jurassic Park and we got Sleepless in Seattle,” ACT UP founder Larry Kramer famously said at the time.

Gebbie resigned as AIDS czar in July 1994 after only 13 months on the job. President Clinton praised her work at the time, saying she helped increase funding “for prevention and research, sped the research and approval process for new drugs, and required every federal employee to receive comprehensive workplace education.”

Gebbie was twice married. Her first marriage to Neil Gebbie and the couple had three children before they divorced. Her second husband, musician Lester Nils Wright, passed away last month.

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