BORN: Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec • 28 February 1953
DIED: Quebec City, Quebec • 30 March 1984
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but there was something un-Canadian about Gaetan Dugas. Perhaps he was too brash and too confident. Maybe he was more fearless than Canadians are said to be. Certainly he was more flashy and seductive in a way that most of us never aspire to—even in our raunchiest dreams.
But typical or not, this Canadian, in a tragic, bizarre way, had an impact on the lives of untold thousands around the world.Born in a village just outside Quebec City in the 1950s, Gaetan Dugas grew up feeling he did not quite belong. When he discovered he had been adopted as an infant, he decided that was the explanation.
Dugas resolved, however, to find a world where he would fit it. He first worked as a hairdresser in his home province. Then he landed his dream job in the mid- 1970s when he was hired as a flight attendant with Air Canada. The young Quebecois was outgoing by nature and enjoyed the work.
It was the fringe bene¬ fits, though, that made flying really worthwhile: the free overseas travel made Dugas a frequent visitor to large cities across Europe and the United States. He met people easily and fell in love with breathtaking frequency. For someone young, strikingly attractive, and single, life was good.
It all started going terribly wrong in 1980. Dugas was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer an unusual condition in itself, but made more so by the fact that doctors were finding the same disease with unusual frequency among young homosexual men in San Francisco and New York.
Within a year, researchers identified the cancer as a symptom of a baffling new syndrome with many names but no cure: “gay cancer,” GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), or ACIDS (Acquired Community Immune Deficiency Syndrome) were all descriptions of the same thing.
Dugas was one of the first North Americans to contract what we now call AIDS. He was almost certainly the first Canadian to be diagnosed with it. Before the extent of the AIDS epidemic was fully realized, Dugas endured a debili¬ tating, painful series of AIDS-related diseases. He died— wholly unknown in his own country—in Quebec City early in 1984.
The extent to which this private tragedy was a public health question came to light only in 1987. That year, American journalist Randy Shilts published the first detailed account of the earliest days of the AIDS crisis.
For Canadians, Shilts reached a stunning conclusion: Gaetan Dugas was likely the first North American to contract AIDS, and, further, that he passed the virus to perhaps thousands of homosexual lovers. In the jargon doctors use to analyse epidemics, Dugas was “Patient Zero.”
This was a controversial and ultimately unprovable claim. And whether Dugas brought the AIDS virus to North America first or not is probably irrelevant. If Dugas did not, someone else did—someone else was Patient Zero.
What really mattered was this Canadian’s cooperation with medical researchers at a vital point: for it was Dugas and his sexual history, Shilts showed, that gave scientists in 1981 and 1982 a breakthrough understanding of the way AIDS was transmitted.
Dugas admitted to thousands of sexual partners, and when hundreds of these men were tracked down, it was clear to researchers for the first time that the AIDS virus might be sexually transmitted. Once laboratory research confirmed this theory, the first real anti-AIDS education was started.
In a bizarre irony, Dugas’ cooperation with researchers saved the lives of many—even though he had likely infected hundreds of others himself.But, sadly, the short sad life of Gaetan Dugas left very little legacy of hope. Blood agencies and health authorities responded to the disease with glacial speed.
Prevailing preju¬ dices against homosexual lifestyles stifled scientific inquiry in the beginning, and gay organizations initially resisted attempts to educate their community about the disease.Of course, for Gaetan Dugas and the thousands he directly or indirectly infected with the killer virus, none of that really mattered.