How we discovered Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic

In the early 1980s, almost none who contracted HIV survived. In London, out of a cohort of 400 early patients, only one man survives today.

I was lucky to avoid the early terror of that time. But the horror of those days would haunt gay men like me for decades. The fear of HIV has been embedded in our psyches.

Much of that fear was from the stigma and shame surrounding the disease. The early victims of AIDS were blamed, prevented and in one case even imprisoned in the name of public health, while the Government delayed and hesitated on treatment of the epidemic and awareness of the disease.

Many hid away, or were silenced by their families, such was the taboo around their illness at the time. So far, John Eaddie’s story is one that no one has ever tried to tell. I was determined to share his story and pay homage.

Our starting point was an entry in The Lancet from December 1981, now widely accepted as the first record of a patient dying of AIDS in the UK. It described the death of a man that year after a slow decline with weight loss and respiration, culminating in pneumocystis pneumonia – later recognized as an indicative sign of AIDS.

The doctors coldly noted that “he was gay” and “traveled to the United States,” suggesting his illness could be linked to similar cases reported in San Francisco and New York City. At the time, the disease was invariably referred to as “gay cancer”, “gay plague”, or by doctors as “GRID” – homosexual immunity.

By gathering three vital pieces of information – the age of the patient, the hospital at which he died, and his suggested cause of death – we were able to begin tracing thousands of death records to test him.

Finally, my producer Nathan found a death certificate for John Eaddie, born April 19, 1932 in Saltburn, Yorkshire. The handwritten cause of death: pneumocystis pneumonia.

This was the only match.

We immediately began tracing John’s family tree, but the first record we could find of him in 1939 showed that as a young boy he lived in a crowded household with several other children, none of whom had the same family name.

We assumed – rightly – that John had been adopted. His family tree would not branch out and provide us with the leads we needed using his family name alone. So instead, we asked for his will. This detailed three beneficiaries we believe to be his adopted siblings. Unfortunately, our search for Alice, Douglas and Mary all ended with the discovery of their death certificates.

But we knew that John had moved from Yorkshire to Bournemouth as an adult, thanks to the address recorded on his death certificate. We tracked his home to an inn in the downtown area that we discovered he owned and cared for as a safe haven for gay men.

We knew that our best chance of finding anyone who knew him was to contact the gay community in Bournemouth. Posting pleas on social media, we were able to contact four friends who were all with him in his last days. We agreed to meet.

Days later I was sitting in the cafe two blocks from where John lived, as his friends arrived one after the other. The weight of human history they had brought into the room was overwhelming.

Through occasional tears, they described John as a charming, kind, and modest man. Camp, a fun and always welcoming host. A big nose was the feature they remembered most playfully – “his nose arrived 10 minutes before him!”

His friends remembered the first signs of his illness – a breathless walk to the shops, the inexplicable weight loss. Several visited John when he was later hospitalized, where doctors could not explain exactly why he died. When he was transferred from Bournemouth to the Royal Brompton in London they went to see him there as well, remembering him tied to machines, unconscious and lean. John died only days later. All four friends later suspected he was lost to AIDS.

His thin face was the last picture any of them had of him. No photo survived of John among his group of friends. John preferred to take the pictures, rather than appear in them. I was afraid we would never see what he looked like.

But what his friends could tell me was that John’s ashes were taken from a Bournemouth crematorium to be buried in Harrogate, where he lived as a boy.

Exploring every cemetery in the area, we finally found his grave. John’s remains were buried in a family plot along with his adopted siblings and their spouses.

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