Don Francis Spearheaded Early AIDS Research

Dreaming of becoming a doctor as a child, Don Francis had no idea that he would become the foremost researcher of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a disease that characterized the 1980s and 1990s in America and continues to be prevalent across the globe. After working to help eradicate smallpox around the world, Francis became one of the first scientists to spearhead research of AIDS. In 1981, he began his long study in search of the syndrome’s symptoms and possible cures. After attempts to find a vaccine failed, Francis started Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases (GSID), a non-profit organization that works to develop accessible vaccines for AIDS and Dengue Fever. Francis talked about his career path last Friday night in a presentation sponsored by the Andover Global Health Initiative, a student organization that looks to educate the Andover community on health issues around the world. In his presentation, Francis described his unconventional path to becoming the Executive Director of GSID and encouraged Andover students to take chances in their careers. Working with those affected by AIDS, Francis was able to see the ways in which a social stigma can affect the perception of a medical issue. As the disease became increasingly associated with homosexuality, which was largely not accepted by conservatives in the 1980s, Francis faced challenges in his research. When the Center for Disease Control (CDC) asked Francis to develop a prevention program for AIDS, the program was denied funding by the government. Later, CDC received notice that they should fire Francis for his research of AIDS, mainly due to the liberal nature of his research. Eventually however, he was allowed to stay at CDC and soon became the director of the AIDS program. “[The hardest moment is] when your overall boss tells you that you are being transferred to a back-room disease because your public stands have stood out against the Republican Administration above the CDC. But I won that battle with the help of well-known doctors,” said Francis. While the AIDS epidemic had started in 1981, Ronald Reagan, the Republican president at the time, only acknowledged it publicly in 1986, according to After leaving the CDC in 1993, he started his own company, VaxGen, to continue the search for a cure to AIDS. He then started GSID to continue in the area of public health and to work with other scientists to solve infectious diseases beyond AIDS with a humanitarian purpose. Francis’s interest in public health began during medical school, when he took a three-month internship in India. “[The] fellowship in India sent me way out of the bush, way out to the base of the Himalaya mountains… I had a pediatric internship all lined up. It was such an interesting experience that I literally wrote a letter from India saying that I couldn’t come… so I stayed for the better part of a year in India,” said Francis. As the Vietnam War progressed, Francis, after graduating from medical school, went to work for the CDC which qualified as government service and exempted him from being drafted. After two years of working with CDC, Francis was asked to help eradicate smallpox from the world. Francis and other CDC workers set off with the plan of vaccinating everyone in the world. Francis helped with smallpox eradication in Sudan, India and Bangladesh, leading up to the eradication of the disease in 1977.