The End of Innocence -
Britain in the Time of Aids


At the beginning of 1981, Dr Tony Pinching was working in his lab at Hammersmith Hospital, London, when he got a call from a friend in the United States. Though he originally set out to be a neurologist, Pinching, 22, was now working almost exclusively with diseases that affected the immune system. His friend in America was working in a similar field and had heard at a meeting some interesting news of specialists who were seeing rare diseases that had no apparent cause and pointed to a total immune system breakdown. They were baffled: Why were these guys getting so sick?

Pinching hoped this might turn out to be a useful mystery. The biology of immunosuppression had reached a sort of plateau: so much was unknown about the immune system, about cell information and function, about the correct use of steroids and other treatments; they needed either some more advanced techniques or some new ideas. He thought: ‘This new disease, whatever it was, might tell us something.’

A few months later, after the first clinical reports of active homosexuals falling sick in California and New York were published, Pinching received two more memorable phone calls. A houseman at St John’s Hospital, London, asked if Pinching could run any tests on a patient he had with a skin disease, probably a cancer infection. The second was from Willie Harris, the senior genito-urinary physician at St Mary’s. Harris had heard that Pinching might soon be joining St Mary’s as a consultant in clinical immunology and told him about a group of patients at St Mary’s Praed Street Clinic. These were sexually active gay men, regular users of recreational drugs, no strangers to sexually transmitted disease – in fact just the sort of people who were becoming unwell in America. The thinking was: if this disease is going to happen over here, we should get in quick and investigate what’s going on. If it wasn’t going to happen, then the reasons why not might also be interesting.

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