The Protection Racket

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The real Darrow has a shock of white hair, pinkish-hued skin, and an academician's build. His sense of humor is dry, and one quickly gets the sense that he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Much of his career, however, has depended upon the skills needed by good interviewers: empathy, self-control, and a quick mind.

Darrow's lifetime work as a sex scientist was launched quite unintentionally. While a senior majoring in economics at the University of Connecticut in 1961, Darrow met a recruiter looking for young graduates to join a project to eradicate syphilis in the United States. John Kennedy had just been sworn into office, and the winds of social change were blowing. Sure, Darrow thought, that seems like a good idea, and he was off to work for the New York City Department of Health.

By his own account, his first forays in his job as a venereal disease investigator were dicey. He's still embarrassed when he recalls acting as an "arrogant bureaucrat" one time by relentlessly pressing a 38-year-old gay man with syphilis to admit that he'd had hundreds of sex partners. He drove the man to tears.

In the early 1960s, the CDC, then called the Communicable Disease Center, began working toward the eradication of syphilis. Darrow joined that effort, under the tutelage of Raymond Forer, a sociologist who had recently set up the first social/behavioral science unit at the CDC, which was partly established to study sexual behavior.

"The program was to introduce the idea of behavioral research into public health and communicable disease control," Darrow says. "Had more to do with people than microbes." The work as a "cub sociologist" inspired him to get a master's degree in the field in 1967. He ultimately received a doctorate from Emory University studying medical sociology; his dissertation examined how the use of condoms affects the spread of venereal disease.

Through the 1970s, Darrow investigated the source and spread of a penicillin-resistant strain of gonorrhea by interviewing prostitutes and their sex partners. In 1977, he joined a CDC team studying the incidence and prevention of hepatitis B among gay men in five cities, including Miami.

"I went to bars and clubs and bathhouses as part of my work," Darrow says. "I knew about these underground activities, and some sociologists were writing about them, some weren't."

So when the CDC began hearing about cases of immune deficiency among gay men on both coasts in the early '80s, the agency tapped Darrow for the Task Force on Kaposi's Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections. (Kaposi's sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects many AIDS patients.)

Today, more than a generation since AIDS first appeared in America, it's sometimes hard to grasp how little was known about AIDS in the early years. In fact, most Americans weren't even aware of the problem for the first couple of years that the team investigated what was initially called gay-related immune deficiency, or GRID.

At that point, the only thing the CDC team knew was that the malady was affecting only gay men. Darrow and others suspected it was a sexually transmitted illness, but others believed it might be caused by an environmental agent in bathhouses, perhaps by breathing in something, as was the case with the 1976 Legionnaires' disease. Some in the National Cancer Institution suspected the cause was tainted "poppers," drugs used to enhance sexual experience.

"First, we had to find the cases," Darrow explains. "What does the San Francisco case have in common with the case in New York and the case in Los Angeles? The evidence started coming in, and it was our job to put it all together and explain what the hell was going on to whoever was interested."

For Darrow, the only nonmedical doctor in the unit, the aha! moment came only after the partner of a hospitalized man in L.A. quietly took a CDC field doctor aside and advised, "You asked my partner all kinds of questions about his sexual activities — what he did, where he went — but you didn't ask who he was having sex with. You probably don't know this, but two or three of the people who are in the same hospital were his sex partners."

Darrow quickly rushed from Atlanta to L.A. to question as many ill men — some near dementia and death — about their sexual partners. By the time he was done in the spring of 1982, Darrow had found sexual ties among 40 men in ten U.S. cities.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson