Fierce advocate saw HIV/AIDS not just as an infection, but as an injustice

Jonathan Mann

[ Spring/Summer 2011 ]

Jonathan Mann, physician and advocate, pragmatist and visionary, transformed the way the world looked at AIDS. As the first head of the World Health Organization’s Global Programme on AIDS, he illuminated the intersection of health and human rights. Mann joined the faculty of HSPH in 1990, as a professor of epidemiology and international health. In 1993 he became the first director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights, founded by the Countess Albina du Boisrouvray. He died at the age of 52 in 1998, in the crash of Swissair Flight 111.

As Jennifer Leaning, current FXB Center director, wrote in an obituary in the British Medical Journal, Mann “created a new discussion at Harvard and throughout the world’s academic community about the nature of illness and health and its relation to isolation and stigmatization.” In his leadership post at the WHO from 1986 to 1990, Mann forged the approach to AIDS now considered axiomatic: prevention; understanding the social and behavioral dynamics and patterns of sexual transmission; comprehensive surveillance, monitoring, and education; a robust program of biomedical research; and an emphasis on the rights of the individual.

“He had an edgy agenda and an edgy analysis,” says Leaning. “He was critical of the pace of progress. He was also critical of WHO’s strategic reasoning, which viewed AIDS as one epidemic among others. Jonathan was saying: One has to look at this as an epidemic among the deeply marginalized. Sometimes, whole societies are marginalized. It’s not just an infection—it’s an injustice.”

—Madeline Drexler