Medicine: Strange Trip Back to the Future

The case of Robert R. spurs new questions about AIDS

Officially, the AIDS epidemic began in the U.S. in 1981. Last week, however, researchers jolted the medical community with evidence that the disease may have made its first appearance in the U.S. almost 15 years earlier. In a front-page article in the Chicago Tribune, they related the extraordinary saga of Robert R., a 16-year-old black Missourian who, they believe, died of AIDS in 1969. The case may represent the earliest documented instance of AIDS in North America, predating that of Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant. Dugas, who contracted AIDS before 1980 and died in 1984, was publicly identified as "Patient...