Doctor Who Reported First AIDS Victims Resigns UCLA Post

Times Medical Writer

Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, the UCLA immunologist who in 1981 first reported cases of the mysterious disease now known as AIDS, has resigned his full-time university post because he said he could not gain tenure.

“The climate at UCLA was not supportive of my academic advancement. It got too difficult to fight the disease and the system at the same time,” Gottlieb, 39, said in an interview this week. “By ‘the system,’ I mean the system that was resistant to facilitating research.”

Gottlieb has gone into private practice seeing AIDS patients in Santa Monica.

Dr. Roy Young, acting chairman of the department of medicine, disputed Gottlieb’s account of why the celebrated researcher left. He said Gottlieb had “conflicts” with some colleagues and there were periods when he was not “research-wise.” Young would not elaborate.


He said Gottlieb resigned the middle of this month, before an academic committee had reached a decision on his promotion to tenured status, which confers a permanent appointment on the recipient.

Gaining tenure on UCLA’s medical faculty is a highly competitive hurdle for young physicians who must try for a limited number of new openings each year. Another potential obstacle, say doctors who have had the experience, can come from already tenured faculty members who, because of personality conflicts or professional jealousy, may try to slow the advancement of a junior physician, especially one who has gained widespread recognition.

Last summer, Gottlieb became the principal investigator on a $10-million project awarded to UCLA’s AIDS treatment evaluation unit by the National Institutes of Health to test new anti-AIDS drugs. The study, to continue for five years, will not be affected by Gottlieb’s resignation.

Gottlieb said he plans to remain affiliated with the project--although he will no longer be the principal investigator--and he hopes to continue teaching as a member of the medical school’s unpaid voluntary faculty.

Los Angeles physicians who are familiar with Gottlieb’s career expressed several reactions to the news that he had left UCLA.

Put on Map

“It’s unbelievable that this would happen to a researcher who has helped to put the school on the map by publishing the first report on AIDS,” one said.

Others pointed out that Gottlieb just happened to be at the place where the first acquired immune deficiency syndrome cases showed up and “the publicity went to his head.” For instance, according to one local AIDS physician who asked to remain anonymous, Gottlieb sometimes would order confirmatory laboratory tests whenever he received an AIDS patient on referral, as if he did not trust the judgment of the referring doctor.


It was only six months after he arrived at UCLA in June, 1980, that Gottlieb encountered the first patient with a puzzling malady that was soon to change the course of his career. The patient, a young male, was suffering from an unusual kind of pneumonia striking otherwise healthy individuals. An examination of the patient’s blood cells revealed that he was almost totally devoid of the kind of immune cells that protect the body from infections.

By early 1981, Gottlieb had seen four more young, male patients with the same illness, called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. The most striking feature was that all five patients were gay. Although all had until recently been healthy, each had the same deficiency of protective cells, an indication that something relatively recent had happened to damage their immune system.

Wrote Report

Gottlieb and Dr. Joel Weisman, a private physician in Los Angeles who had referred some of the cases to UCLA, wrote a brief report of what they had learned and sent it to the federal Centers for Disease Control for publication in its weekly newsletter.


Appearing on June 5, 1981, it was the first report on AIDS in medical literature. Within days, investigators began reporting similar cases in San Francisco, New York and Miami and the worldwide AIDS epidemic was under way.