Tom Curtis

It is with great regret that I have learnt through one of the subscribers to this site of the death of the American journalist Tom Curtis on January 22nd, 2017. Below is the notice that appeared on his Facebook page.

“To all friends of Tom Curtis.

Tom passed away peacefully at noon today after a many-years-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He will be sorely missed by the many who knew him and worked with him over the past 70+ years. There will be a gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 502 Church Rear Street, Galveston, TX on January 29 at 10:30 a.m. According to my sources, everyone who knew or admired Tom would be welcome to attend.”

Tom’s article “The Origin of AIDS. A startling new theory attempts to answer the question: ‘Was it an act of God or an act of Man?'”appeared in Rolling Stone issue 626, with a cover date of March 19th, 1992, and it was this article that set me on the path to investigating what came to be known as the Oral Polio Vaccine theory (or “OPV theory”) of AIDS origin. It focussed on an OPV called CHAT which had been developed by Hilary Koprowski, a Polish-American virologist, and administered to hundreds of thousands of Africans in the late 1950s.

By the time I read the article, in the summer of 1992, I had been investigating AIDS for six years, and the origins of the pandemic for the last two. By this stage, I had looked into over 15 different theories of origin, and apart from the null theory (involving the chance crossover of an immunodeficiency virus from African primate to Homo sapiens), this was the only hypothesis that held up to scrutiny. Two aspects about Tom’s article were especially intriguing. Tom stated that 325,000 people in central Africa had been vaccinated with CHAT in the 1950s, and said that it was not clear in which primate species the vaccine had been made.

I was impressed by Tom’s article, but especially by these two aspects, which prompted further thoughts based on my own research. My first reaction was that clearly there were close geographical and temporal correlations between the places where Koprowski’s vaccine had been administered, and the earliest examples of HIV and AIDS in the world, which came to light in the years immediately following. (This became even more apparent in years to come, when I gathered evidence of over 900,000 CHAT vaccinations in Africa, which had taken place in 28 different campaigns. A statistician has analysed the results, finding a “highly significant” correlation between the places where CHAT was given and the places where HIV first emerged in central Africa.)

The second was that Tom had pointed out that a simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that was similar to HIV existed naturally in the African Green Monkey, and proposed that the Koprowski vaccine might have been made either in cells from that species, or from other species with which AGMs had been caged. But in his article, he also mentioned that Koprowski had tested his polio vaccines “at a colony of 150 chimpanzees at Camp Lindi at Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo (now Kisangani, Zaire)”. This seemed to me to be a vital clue, because shortly before Tom’s article was published it had been announced that the SIV of the common chimpanzee was, by some distance, the closest viral relative to the AIDS pandemic strain, HIV-1. Indeed, it appeared to be the direct ancestor of the AIDS virus. So what if the Lindi chimps had been used not just to test the Koprowski vaccine, but also to make it?

It took many years of research and hundreds of interviews before I was able to prove that CHAT vaccine had indeed been prepared locally in the cells of the Lindi chimpanzees and given to African vaccinees, even if most of the scientists who were directly involved routinely denied this. However, there were some significant chinks in the wall of denial. One involved the Stanleyville histopathologist, Gaston Ninane, who when first describing the vaccine said three times in a couple of minutes that it had been made in the cells of the common chimpanzee. He later retracted this statement, but only after I had told him that the articles of the day had referred to the vaccine being made in monkey cells, not in chimpanzee cells. However, in 2002 the chief technician from the Stanleyville lab, Pierre Doupagne, admitted in the course of a third interview that he had regularly been making tissue culture from the cells of the Lindi chimps, and supplying these cells to the man who was handling the vaccines in Stanleyville, Paul Osterrieth. There is considerably more evidence of this type, but this is not the right place or time.

At the back end of 1992 Koprowski threatened legal action against Tom Curtis and Rolling Stone. The magazine contested the action, but in December 1993, having already spent half a million dollars defending the case, it published a “Clarification” on the AIDS story, pointing out that Tom had merely proposed a hypothesis, and that he had never maintained that Koprowski was responsible for the birth of AIDS . Koprowski always presented this clarification as a “retraction” and a climbdown, but in fact it was neither. The truth of the matter was that Tom’s instincts about this controversial story were right all along.

I only met Tom Curtis once, which was when he came over to England to attend the Royal Society conference on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic” in September 2000. A few days after the meeting he came to visit me at my home, and we spent a day together, discussing the origins theory. During the day he asked me several careful questions about my work, and I showed him several of the source materials that I had collected for “The River”. Sadly the Royal Society decided (on flimsy grounds) that the OPV theory was unlikely, and the follow-up article that Tom prepared for Rolling Stone was never published.

Tom was a fine and scrupulous journalist and a very decent man, and like many others I regret his passing.

Ed Hooper January 24th, 2017.

The following obituary was written by Tom’s niece Renee Kealey and submitted by Omar Bagasra:

Thomas A. Curtis

Journalist and Editor

Thomas A. “Tom” Curtis died Sunday, January 22, 2017, at his Galveston home from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Tom was born in Galveston on August 26, 1945, to Kent and Tommy Curtis, whose other three children were Michael, Daphne and Ernie, the latter two since deceased.         

Tom’s career in journalism began early. After graduating in 1963 from Ball High School, where he edited the school newspaper and worked as a copy boy for the Galveston Daily News, in 1968 he completed Antioch College’s distinctive five-year bachelor’s degree program, which alternated campus life and work-study. For Tom, that included a stint editing the college paper and an internship at the Wall Street Journal, for which he wrote a page one feature on collectors of antique musical instruments. After working as assistant city editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he went on to serve as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and as news director for KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica Radio affiliate; as Houston correspondent for the New York Times and the Washington Post; and later as Houston bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald.

A passionate advocate for social justice, civil rights and environmental protection, Tom won significant victories for these causes through his incisive investigative reporting. Among his hundreds of articles for regional and national media, one of the most influential appeared in the March 19, 1992, issue of Rolling Stone exploring a controversial hypothesis linking the origin of AIDS to trials of polio vaccine in Africa. While many scientists disputed this explanation, the article helped fuel discussion about the cross-species transmission of viral diseases.

Two of Tom’s features for Texas Monthly, where he served as a senior editor, led to significant reforms in the Houston Police Department: the September 1977 cover story “New Gang in Town,” which documented abuses in the use of deadly force, and “The Throwdown” (August 1979), which focused on the quest of the father of one victim to seek out the truth of his son’s death at the hands of the Houston police. The latter was made into a 1981 movie for CBS, “The Killing of Randy Webster,” directed by Sam Wanamaker, starring Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter and praised by the New York Times as “a good many cuts above average.” Looking into a mysterious “biocatalyst” used to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill led Tom to the story of Jim Martin, the retired railroad fireman and self-taught inventor who apparently developed the elixir from cow manure in the 1950s. Tom’s account appeared in the June 1990 issue of Texas Monthly as “The Old Man and the Secret.”

Some of Tom’s writing, such as the March 1988 Texas Monthly cover story “Lifestyles of the Rich and Bankrupt,” reflected his arch sense of humor. His most prized heirloom was an address book in which his parents had inscribed dozens of naughty limericks, alphabetized by the last word of each first line.

 In addition to co-founding Houston City Magazine and serving as its editor three times, Tom edited the magazine of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), translating scientific research into lucid lay terms. As much impact as his own writing had, Tom was proudest of the journalists he mentored, many of whom went on to work for major media outlets. In recognition of both his own achievements and those of the writers he mentored, Tom was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.        Tom is survived by his devoted long-term companion, Victoria Narkin; his brother, Michael Curtis; his niece, Renee Kealey; his nephews, Matthew Curtis-Maury and Michael Tillerson; his cousins, Cecile King and Nick Zindler; his second cousins, Catherine Cavazos, Liz Foreman, John King and Chandra McLaughlin; his ex-wife, Sandy Sheehy; his lifelong friend, Nancy Schneider Heller; and numerous other friends and admirers.

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