Remembering Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Early Pioneer on AIDS

Dr. Sonnabend was a co-founder of the AIDS Medical Foundation, amfAR’s predecessor.

Dr. Sonnabend with Dr. Mathilde Krim
Dr. Sonnabend with Dr. Mathilde Krim

Joseph Sonnabend, M.D., opened a medical practice treating mostly gay men in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1978. Almost immediately he began to see the constellations of symptoms in his patients that would come to be known as AIDS.

Before there was any organized AIDS research effort, Dr. Sonnabend initiated several research projects with colleagues as far away as Kyoto, Japan, and went to work – for no pay – in the lab at New York University. In an interview with amfAR in 2000, Dr. Sonnabend said, “My feeling at this point, in 1981 and 1982, was that this was an emergency. I had no doubt.”

I was in a unique position because of my clinical and research background,” he said. “I was trained as a microbiologist, and my entire career, up until this point, had been in academic research in virology and infectious diseases. It wasn’t just that I had a passing familiarity with the research methodology — this was my life.”

Paying for the research out of his own pocket, both his personal finances and his medical practice began to suffer. “It got to the point where Mathilde [Krim], who was a personal friend, was keeping me afloat,” he said.

In 1983, the two friends, along with Michael Callen and others, co-founded the AIDS Medical Foundation, which would join forces with Elizabeth Taylor’s National AIDS Research Foundation to form amfAR in 1985.   

Dr. Sonnabend’s contributions to the AIDS response were wide-ranging.  He designed community-based clinical trials when there were few precedents for such research. He was the founding editor of the journal AIDS Research, which began publication in 1983, and in the same year, with Michael Callen and Richard Berkowtiz, he produced the first safe-sex guidelines, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach. He also co-founded the PWA Health Group and the Community Research Initiative (CRI) in 1987.  

Reflecting on his work, Dr. Sonnabend said, “I think everything that I’ve done with respect to AIDS has been predicated on a “do it yourself” principle — since we can’t rely on the government, we’ll do whatever we need to do ourselves.”

In 2000, amfAR honored Dr. Sonnabend with its Award of Courage for his pioneering leadership and numerous achievements. In 2005, he retired from his medical practice in New York and moved to London. On World AIDS Day that year, he was awarded a Red Ribbon Leadership Award from the National HIV/AIDS Partnership. 

“We owe Joe Sonnabend a colossal debt of gratitude for his courageous and indefatigable leadership early in the epidemic in the face of widespread skepticism and government inaction,” said Kevin Robert Frost, amfAR’s Chief Executive Officer. “He will be remembered by many for his compassion and kindness as a physician. And we will honor his memory by advancing and achieving our mission to end the global AIDS epidemic through innovative research.” 

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