University of Washington scientist collects blood sample of first documented case of HIV in 1959.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5353
In 1959, Dr. Arno Motulsky, a medical geneticist at the University of Washington, collects in Africa the first documented human blood sample containing the immunodeficiency virus known as HIV, which causes AIDS. AIDS has spread around the world in a deadly pandemic that has infected 60 million people and killed 15 million (as of mid-2000).

Motulsky was collecting samples in the Congo looking for genetic factors that make some people resistant to malaria. The sample was collected from a Bantu man, and kept for decades at the University of Washington and later at the Puget Sound Blood Bank. Motulsky's samples were tested in 1997 using newly available genetic amplification techniques.

It Didn't Hurt the Monkeys

Geneticist Tanmoy Bhattachary of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, studying the genetic rate of change in the HIV, reported in the June 2000 issue of Science that the virus originated in a benign simian (apes and monkeys) virus in southwest Africa between 1915 and 1941, with 1931 being the most likely year. HIV1, the strain of the virus that has caused the pandemic, came from the chimpanzee, a primate closely related to humans.

A form of HIV1 called Group M has spread throughout the world, infected 50 million people, and killed 16 million. AIDS was recognized as a disease in the 1970s. HIV1 was isolated and confirmed in 1983.

Bhattachary stated that the most common form of HIV in the United States, subgroup B, first evolved between 1960 and 1971, with 1967 being the most likely year.

Colonialism and Social Disruption

Researcher Jim Moore of the University of California, San Diego, has studied the European colonialism in Africa that made social conditions ripe for a new virus to take hold. In the late nineteenth century, the colonial powers forced people out of their traditional villages. They had to live in the jungles and survive by hunting and gathering. Meat from chimpanzees and monkeys was a major source of food. The colonial powers also organized large work gangs of Africans and promoted prostitution to keep workers pacified who were isolated from more usual social contexts.

HIV is a sexually transmitted disease.


Sources: "How Aids, Once Benign, Evolved Into a Menace," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 9, 2000, p. 1.

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