If you embrace the idea that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, chances are you've heard these two names: Peter Duesberg, professor of biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Bryan Ellison, Cal graduate student. For years, the two have been at the center of what can be called the AIDS dissident movement, that collection of scientists, professors, psychiatrists and the just generally suspicious who think that the United States scientific establishment has its head up its ass when it comes to finding the reason behind, and the cures for, AIDS.
In their struggle to make themselves heard over the consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Duesberg and Ellison have waged an often-contentious battle with the rest of the world. And in 1994, they were on the brink of a victory: Their almost-completed book about Duesberg's theory at a major New York publishing house was scheduled to be published in time for the holidays. But then, after years of struggling on the same side — and with conquest in sight — Duesberg and Ellison had a falling-out. Now, instead of duking it out with everyone else, the two have turned their well-honed battle skills against each other — throwing their small, insular and strangely seductive group of retrovirus heretics into an uproar.
Briefly stated, Duesberg's AIDS hypothesis is this: that the use of “illicit” drugs, specifically poppers, suppresses the immune system and leads to what other scientists define as AIDS. In 1987, when he first published that argument in a journal called Cancer Research, Duesberg was an oft-funded scientist, a seven-time recipient of the Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health and widely known for his 1970 cancer gene research. In other words, he came to the table with credentials. But since then, Duesberg's position on HIV has put him at odds with many of his fellow scientists, who view him — when they're not ignoring him — as the purveyor of a dangerous argument, one that at best has no merit and at worst might encourage people toward dangerous behavior. Yet while he has found himself isolated from mainstream discussions on AIDS, Duesberg has gained a tenacious band of supporters, including Kary Mullis, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work concerning DNA. Chief among the Duesberg adherents, until recently: Ellison, Duesberg's graduate student and lab assistant.
In May 1994, Ellison and Duesberg were getting ready to publish a book titled Inventing the AIDS Epidemic at St. Martin's Press. They were working with Michael Denneny, who edited Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On. It was an event eagerly anticipated by the members of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, an assortment of writers, professors and enthusiasts of which the duo were key members.
But then things fell apart.
Faced with demands for manuscript changes from St. Martin's, Ellison balked. That led to an argument between the two men. Then Ellison self-published the manuscript in July 1994, in a work titled Why We Will Never Win the War on AIDS, which listed both Ellison and Duesberg — in that order — as authors. The book publication led to a full-fledged fight on the Internet and other places pitting Duesberg and the group against Ellison and a former stockbroker named James Trabulse, who had been acting as publisher for the group's newsletter, Rethinking AIDS.
“He completely refused to make any more changes and he wouldn't talk to me anymore,” says Duesberg of Ellison.
“I suspect he's doing favors on behalf of several people in government, the sort of people who want to suppress this work,” says Ellison of Duesberg.
So far, the dispute between Ellison and Duesberg has forced the group to rename its newsletter, move its publishing headquarters from Sutter Street to San Diego and reconstruct its mailing list.
“All members of the group have repudiated the advertisements, and have ceased to have any connection with Bryan Ellison or with James Trabulse, the former publisher of the Rethinking AIDS newsletter, who seems to be working with Ellison,” a posting on the World Wide Web announces.
In addition, in the aftermath of the rift between Duesberg and Ellison, the former graduate student is no longer at Cal, something he blames his former mentor for. “He cooperated with some of the very hostile factors to have me thrown out of school right before I could submit my thesis and get my Ph.D.,” Ellison says of Duesberg. The professor, on the other hand, sees it differently: “Since he didn't talk to me anymore and didn't show up at the lab, I couldn't pay him anymore.”
But if the current and former members of the group can agree that there is a rift, they don't see eye to eye on what toll it will take on the heretofore tightly knit AIDS dissident movement.
Ellison, for one, says he's better off on his own.
“As long as Dr. Duesberg was handling it, it was relatively academic,” Ellison says. “The public loves this book. We're selling quite well. A whole movement is building around this book now rather than around Peter Duesberg.”
But Duesberg — and the other members of the group — hold Ellison accountable for the demise of the St. Martin's book, and the attention that might have accompanied it.
“If this book had been properly edited at St. Martin's Press, I think my case would have been strengthened a lot, at least in the public arena,” says Duesberg.
“It's tragic. What could have been an outstanding book if Ellison had shown some good sense just didn't come to pass in a way,” says Berkeley law professor, and group member, Phillip Johnson. “This whole history tarnishes it a bit.”
“If it had come out with St. Martin's, it could have had a tremendous effect,” Johnson says. “I think it's a tragedy.”
“Ellison has been playing very dirty games,” says Nathaniel Lehrman, a group member and former director of a Long Island psychiatric facility who recently spent time in jail on charges of Medicaid fraud, a fact he volunteers as proof that AIDS dissenters are subject to persecution by the government. “He's prevented it from getting published by a big publisher with a big distribution. It's pretty dastardly.”
“They were using the group's newsletter to sell this book which Peter Duesberg did not approve of. This is certainly, I think, a very immoral act,” says Charles A. Thomas, a former Harvard professor who now publishes the group's reorganized newsletter. “Bryan refused to have a single syllable of his deathless prose edited.”
After Ellison published his book, Duesberg went to court in New York to stop its publication. Duesberg also found a home at another publishing house, Regnery Publishing Inc., in Washington, D.C., for his version of the work, which is due out in September under the title Inventing the AIDS Virus, with a foreword by Mullis, the Nobel laureate. Regnery's catalog lists the book as “an original and incisive critique of the rise and fall of HIV.” Regnery's owner, Alfred Regnery, says he purchased the contract for the book from St. Martin's, and that “not having Ellison cooperate as far as our book sales are concerned probably won't matter.”
“We're suing Bryan,” Regnery notes. “It's our position that Ellison is doing this in violation of our contract.”
But Ellison, for his part, doesn't think the Regnery book will ever come out. “They'll never publish,” he says.
“It's uncertain,” Duesberg says, “because of the stupid legal things.