The Man Who Knew Too Soon?

Eight years ago Tom Curtis reported that AIDS could have been spread by an experimental polio vaccine grown on monkey kidneys. Scientists sniffed. Journalists scoffed. The story died. Now, a new book says the theory wasn't so stupid after all.

Tom Curtis -- neither a bitter nor an overtly sweet man himself -- must have indulged a bittersweet chuckle, sitting in his Galveston office that Tuesday morning, November 30, 1999, reading his New York Times.

There on page one of the Science section, reporter Lawrence D. Altman, M.D., had devoted more than 2,000 words to a thoughtful, and respectful, review of The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, a 1,000-plus-page book in which British researcher Edward Hooper builds a provocative, if circumstantial, case for the theory that the worldwide AIDS pandemic originated in massive experimental polio vaccine inoculations carried out in central Africa in the late 1950s.

Curtis would have been familiar with the controversial theory. He was the first to write about it for a broad audience, in a lengthy article titled "The Origin of AIDS," in Rolling Stone, in February 1992, wherein Curtis took pains to make clear that the theory was just that: a theory, with detractors, whom he quoted at length, and advocates, who suggested further study.

Tom Curtis on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston.
Tom Curtis on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston.
The River author Edward Hooper  -  "97 percent persuaded."
John Wolstenholme
The River author Edward Hooper - "97 percent persuaded."

For his trouble, Curtis was largely ridiculed by the scientific press, dismissed by the mainstream press, mocked by some fellow reporters, sued for libel by an eminent scientist and subsequently dropped by his editors like a very hot rock. As a print journalist, Curtis essentially disappeared.

Without referring to Curtis by name, the Times's Altman wrote that the 1992 Rolling Stone article had seemed "far-fetched." But clearly impressed by the extensive endnotes and exhaustive library research evident in Hooper's book, Altman labeled The River "remarkable" and urged the scientific community to act on Hooper's recommendations, which include a collection of experiments designed to test the hypothesis.

Never mind that Curtis's article and Hooper's book posit essentially the same theory (and call for essentially the same tests, which have yet to be performed). And never mind that it was Curtis's article, according to Hooper himself, that defined the direction of Hooper's research for the better part of a decade.

The mostly reasoned reception to Hooper's book, pro and con, is all the vindication that Curtis is likely to want. The germane issue is not Tom Curtis or Tom Curtis's career, after all, he'll say. At issue is a theory, and the freedom -- scientific, constitutional -- to participate in public discussion of that theory, be it right, wrong or undetermined. Hooper's book is breaking through some of the barriers that blocked Curtis seven years ago, and that can be only a good thing, he figures. The theory, at last -- and at least -- is being discussed.

And the numbers are adding up: positive reviews in major magazines, calls for further investigation in scientific journals, editorials urging study published in the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. For Edward Hooper, there is sweet safety in those numbers, in this growing consensus that his story -- and the question it contains -- is a valid one.

Not like back in 1992, when Tom Curtis and his story found themselves standing bitterly close to all alone.


Tom Curtis today has whitish hair and a whitish moustache and a measured manner of speaking that suggests he's thinking out several sentences for every word that he actually, carefully, speaks.

"There are reporters who basically join the multitude and love to cover those stories that everyone else is covering," Curtis says. "I've tended to sort of go it alone on stories, and try and follow stories that others are not developing."

The preference is long practiced. As a freshman at Galveston's Ball High School, Curtis worked part-time as a copy boy at The Galveston Daily News, and by the time he was a sophomore he was self-publishing a mimeographed collection of observations called "Controversy." As a senior he wrote for the official Ball High School paper and read the works of early muckrakers Lincoln Steffers and Ida Tarbell.

Curtis left Texas to matriculate at Antioch, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. On the campus green stood a statue of Antioch's first president, Horace Mann. The inscription, as Curtis remembers it: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some great victory for humanity."

At Antioch he joined the Young Democrats, edited the college newspaper and saw his very first work-study byline for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on November 22, 1963, buried by the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

When Curtis qualified for a Dow Jones scholarship, which required a written report of his journalistic experience at the hosting newspaper, he blasted the Plain Dealer for being out of touch with its community. Later, when Curtis moved to New York City and applied for a job with the Dow Jones-owned Wall Street Journal, the report was unearthed in his file, and impressed Journal editors hired him to a six-month internship.

After graduating with a degree in political science, Curtis shadowed then-ascendant yippie Abbie Hoffman for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News and earned a fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center think tank. When the fellowship ended during the first Nixon administration, with newspapers nationwide freezing hiring in the plummeting economy, Curtis found his way back to Texas and the Houston Chronicle, which, like the rest of the city it covered, bucked national trends on the strength of a booming oil business.

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