Pioneering AIDS Researcher Joseph Sonnabend Dies at 88

Tuesday January 26, 2021

Pioneering AIDS researcher and clinician Joseph Sonnabend, 88, died January 24, 2021, at the Wellington Hospital in London, after suffering a heart attack on January 3, 2021.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a physician mother and university professor father, Joseph Adolph Sonnabend grew up in Bulawayo, in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He trained in infectious diseases at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh.

In the 1960s, Sonnabend worked in London under Alick Isaacs, the co-discoverer of interferon, at the National Institute of Medical Research. In the early 1970s, he moved to New York City to continue interferon research as an associate professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

Sonnabend later served as Director of Continuing Medical Education at the Bureau of VD Control at the New York City Department of Health, where he advocated for a focus on gay men's health, particularly programs to reduce sexually-transmitted infections.

In 1978, Sonnabend volunteered at the Gay Men's Health Project in Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village, and started a private clinic for treating sexually transmitted infections. When gay men in his practice began to get sick, he was among the first clinicians in the U.S. to recognize the emerging AIDS epidemic.

Simon Watney, a writer, activist and close friend of Sonnabend's, said, "One of Joe's most important contributions was his belief—that he conveyed to his patients—that AIDS would not be 100% fatal, that no matter how bleak the prognosis, some people would ultimately survive. That provided powerful hope at a time when hope was in short supply."

Sonnabend was widely respected as an unusually compassionate clinician and researcher, willing to see any patient regardless of ability to pay, never giving up on a patient and always providing hope. In return, he earned an unusually devoted appreciation and admiration from his patients.

David Kirschenbaum, an AIDS activist and close friend, said, "When thinking of all his accomplishments and contributions to saving lives during the AIDS crisis, one cannot separate Joe the scientist/physician from Joe, the man. His compassion for humanity was the driving force behind all that he was able to achieve in medical research. This is why he eschewed the spotlight which he so rightly deserves."