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.

The damage, however, was done.

Curtis had been drafting a follow-up article on the topic for Rolling Stone; after the settlement, his editor Robert Love paid him a kill fee for work he had done so far on the story that would never see print. Love, now Rolling Stone's managing editor, penned an editor's note in Rolling Stone's latest issue (January 20, 2000) about Edward Hooper's new book, mentioning Curtis and his story briefly, Koprowski's lawsuit more briefly still, the kill fee not at all, and calling for further scientific, and not legal, action. Love failed to return multiple phone calls for this story.

From March through October 1992, Curtis freelanced a series on developments in the story to The Houston Post. Chris Lavin, then an assistant city editor who worked with Curtis on the series, recalls the stories being complicated and difficult to edit, and the presence of dissent among reporters in the newsroom over the story's value. Lavin herself thought the series was a Pulitzer contender, though not all of her colleagues agreed.

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."

"I just chalked that up to newsroom bickering," Lavin says now.

On October 23, 1992, Curtis's reporting on the Wistar Institute's recommendations ran deep inside the paper, on page A-16. And with that, oddly, the series ended.

Curtis says he can't remember any specific communications that his story would not be followed up, just "a great chill in the atmosphere. I got the message."

The Post, Lavin says, hung Curtis out to dry.

Koprowski's suit, Curtis says, cost Rolling Stone half a million dollars in legal fees, plus the $1 settlement. Curtis resists attempts to paint him as a victim, but the suit clearly didn't do his career much good either.

"It took approximately a year out of my life when I was running back and forth to New York to assist the lawyers and get deposed. I continued to freelance, but I really was not able to follow up on this story. I really would like to have followed up on it, I would like to have done a book, and I guess I was saddened to realize the uncomfortable lesson that if you are not rich, and somebody is rich, and you are a freelance writer who wants to pursue something, it is so very easy to shut you up. Because who's going to step into this breach and want to get sued and have to spend a bunch of money on lawyers, even if in the end it turns out that the writer is right?"

The question is rhetorical, but it's got an answer still: Until Edward Hooper's book, eight years later, Tom Curtis's OPV-AIDS story was a breach into which no one was willing to step.

Edward Hooper, of Somerset, England, remembers reading about Tom Curtis's "The Origin of AIDS" article in a publication called AIDS Newsletter, to which Hooper subscribed and sometimes contributed. Hooper called the newsletter's editors and asked them to send him a copy of Curtis's article. Hooper, a onetime BBC correspondent, had already published a short book of reportage called Slim about the African AIDS crisis, and was two years into sporadic research toward what would become The River.

Hooper read the article and found himself first impressed then, increasingly, excited. Curtis had pointed out rough correlations between those areas of the African map where the earliest cases of AIDS emerged and Koprowski's polio vaccine had been tested. Hooper says he recognized from his own research that "the correlations were in fact far tighter" than even Curtis seemed to know.

Curtis had speculated that Koprowski's vaccine-growing medium might have been African green monkey kidney, but Hooper knew that chimpanzees were a more likely carrier of the relevant SIV, and Curtis's passing mention of a large camp of chimpanzees kept by Koprowski for research piqued his interest.

Hooper went for a drive down the southern coast of Great Britain -- he remembers it being a clear summer day -- and mulled Curtis's hypothesis. When he got home, he read the story again and finished it even more impressed than before.

"Really," says Hooper, "that's where I began, at that moment, that day, a new line of research. I began by trying to contact some of the people mentioned in his article, and indeed Tom himself."

The two briefly discussed collaborating on a book about the origin of AIDS, but logistics, and likely ego, got in the way. Curtis's own origin-of-AIDS book proposal to an American publisher stalled, Curtis says, when the publisher wouldn't agree to represent him, legally, as Rolling Stone had, in the event of another Koprowski suit. The way Curtis remembers it, the publisher told Curtis he'd have to represent not only himself in the case of a legal challenge, but the publisher as well.

Curtis did the math and decided not to court financial ruin.

In the meantime, Sex, Lies, and Videotape director Steven Soderbergh had optioned the movie rights to the Rolling Stone story, and Universal Studios retained Curtis for a year to write the screenplay, but like most optioned properties, the project died on the vine, and the screenplay was never made into a film.

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