Obituary for Maria Luisa Bozzi, 1939-2004

It is with great sadness that I have to report the death, in Torino, Italy on May 11th, 2004, of Bill Hamilton’s partner of his last six years, Maria Luisa Bozzi.

Following an operation on her lungs some twenty years ago, Luisa (as she was known to her friends) had suffered from asthma, and it is believed that she may have suffered a massive asthma attack in the moments before she died. An autopsy was conducted, and the results will be announced in due course.

Luisa Bozzi was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. She graduated in biology from Torino University in the early sixties, and conducted research in several different countries around the world during the next three decades. In her later years, she also became a science journalist, and a writer of scientific text books.

Luisa met Bill Hamilton during one of his many research trips to the Amazon in 1994 (some months after Bill and his wife Christine had separated), and they immediately became close. (This in itself was unusual, for Bill did not normally encourage the presence of women on his expeditions and safaris.) Almost immediately, Luisa became involved with Bill’s other scientific work, most particularly in the over-riding preoccupation of his final years: the origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic.

At the start of the year 2000, Luisa and Bill were preparing to set up house together in the New Forest, and so it came as an overwhelming shock to Luisa when, in late January, Bill suddenly collapsed. This happened the day after he returned from his second expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which he had tried to obtain faecal and urine samples from wild chimpanzees, to test for the presence of simian immunodeficiency virus. Bill spent six weeks in a coma and died in early March.

Although Luisa took a long time to come to terms with Bill’s tragic and unexpected death, it was only a few weeks after his demise that she felt she needed to become more actively involved in the origins of AIDS debate. At Bill’s memorial service, it became clear that some of his former Oxford colleagues were trying to reinvent his role in that debate, presenting him as a concerned neutral who merely felt that all hypotheses deserved to be tested. As the months passed, Luisa took it upon herself to read all of Bill’s documents and correspondence on the subject, which helped confirm her own belief that, at the time of his death, he had been “95% persuaded” that the OPV/AIDS hypothesis had merit.

In September 2001, she gave a moving speech entitled “Truth and science: Bill Hamilton’s legacy” at the Lincei conference on “Origin of HIV and Emerging Persistent Viruses”. [Atti dei Convegni Lincei; 2003; 187; 21-26; see this web-site.] The speech emphasised Bill’s support of the OPV theory, and the importance that he had always placed on openness and integrity in science. It was a quiet yet powerful warning to those who had attempted to misrepresent his position on this issue.

Following the Lincei conference Luisa continued to defend both Bill’s and my work on the origins debate. I spoke with her twice on the phone during her final few days, and she was unusually forthright about some of the alleged “refutations” of the OPV/AIDS theory which had appeared in major scientific journals. She was particularly disappointed that some of those scientists who had offered to collaborate with Bill on his final research in the Congo had either failed to test the resulting samples, or had failed to honour promises to share those samples with labs from both sides of the increasingly heated debate. There may be a time when it is appropriate for me to quote some of Luisa’s final thoughts on this subject, but it is not now.

Luisa Bozzi had many hidden strengths, not least her quiet wisdom. Though her manner was unassuming, she was in fact fiercely honest and loyal, and – like Bill – found spin, misrepresentation and “economies with the truth” almost impossible to tolerate. With regard to the origins debate, she had a very firm grasp of the issues, and was a particular source of strength to me personally, for her willingness to analyse not only the latest scientific developments, but also the political and emotional undercurrents that so often swirled beneath.

Luisa was also an enormously warm, kind and generous person, and it is for these reasons, above all others, that she will be profoundly missed by those who knew and loved her.

She leaves one son, Marco, a trainee architect.

Edward Hooper. May 17th, 2004.