Essex Papers to End Up at Harvard

Max Essex in his office


The papers of noted AIDS researcher Dr. Max Essex will end up at Harvard, where he has been conducting significant HIV/AIDS research since the beginning of the epidemic. Essex is the Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences at Harvard University, as well as Chair of both the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative (HAI) and the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP).

Essex’s papers will become part of the collection of the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Countway Medical Library. “We’re very interested in the history of HIV,” said Dr. Scott Harris Podolsky, the Center’s Director. “HIV is such an important disease to understand historically, not only on account of its prevalence and lethality, but how it demonstrates the interplay among virology, immunology, culture, and the structural forces determining who gets sick and who gets access to appropriate medications worldwide. Max Essex has been a central figure in understanding all of these issues—from the biology of the virus and the immune response, to the prevention and treatment of the disease globally. We couldn’t do this story justice without acquiring his papers.”

In 1982, Essex hypothesized, along with Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, that a retrovirus was the cause of AIDS. With colleagues, he identified the envelope proteins of HIV that are routinely used for diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and for blood screening. With students and collaborators, he identified the simian T cell leukemia virus (STLV) and the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) in monkeys, and HIV-2 in people in West Africa. His group showed that HIV-2 was less virulent and less transmissible than HIV-1.

The goal of the Center is to capture the behind-the-scenes workings of science and medicine, and to further the understanding of the relationship between medicine and society. “It’s one of the largest history of medicine collections in the world,” said Podolsky. “We have faculty collections ranging from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Mary Ellen Avery to Judah Folkman and now to Max Essex.”

Archivists at the Center for the History of Medicine
Archivists Carolyn Hayes and Heather Mumford review materials.

Essex made the gift official on November 12th. Archivists at the Center have begun sorting through boxes of his letters, notebooks, and drafts of early papers that were stacked haphazardly in a storage cage near campus. With his busy schedule and on-going research projects, Essex doesn’t have time to sort through the papers piled precariously high in his office. Those will have to wait.

“Harvard has obviously been central to my research on HIV/AIDS and the base for a large number of successful collaborations, both with students and faculty,” said Essex, about why Harvard seemed the best place for his papers.

“We’re grateful to be able to acquire his unique materials and to be able to make them available to students, clinicians, and historians contemplating the prevention and treatment of past, current, and future plagues,” said Podolsky.

Title photo: Max Essex in his office. Photo by Jon Chase, Harvard Staff Photographer.