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Champion of the people

In March, Australia and the world lost one of the leading figures in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Christopher Kelly pays tribute to Professor David Cooper.

Professor David Cooper was a young immunologist working in America when he first became aware of HIV/AIDS. While working at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, blood samples arrived from very ill, gay young men in New York. Professor Cooper was due to return to Sydney to take up a specialist’s position at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. With the hospital located close to the hub of the city’s gay ghetto, Professor Cooper was sure that similar cases would soon show up there. Which they did, giving Professor Cooper the grim distinction of diagnosing some of the first cases of HIV in Australia.

More cases inevitably followed and beds on Ward 17 South (the AIDS unit) at St Vincent’s began filling up fast. Tina Kelleher was a nurse on the ward. “There was death: confronting, often painful, sometimes lonely. In the early days people would come in and die within a matter of hours, some in Emergency while waiting for a bed.”

At this time, very little was known about HIV/AIDS. In order to find answers, Professor Cooper and his colleagues visited medical practices in Oxford Street to enrol young gay men in a study. The results led Professor Cooper to present a seminal paper in The Lancet — the first-ever of its kind to describe in detail the so-called “seroconversion illness”.

Very soon after the first cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed in Australia, activists from the gay community began communicating with one another. Networks were formed to share what little information there was about the cause of a deadly disease primarily affecting gay men. Professor Cooper was always willing to engage with the community and share what he knew.

“Throughout the years, he spent time in dialogue with community leaders and activists — many often his own patients,” said former executive director of the National Association of People with HIV Australia, Jo Watson. “He would furiously debate the issues when we were pushing for things to be better, faster, or when we were demanding more attention on an emerging issue. He would relish the engagement and was determined to find collaboration and partnership, even when there was frustration and tension over intersections of science, policy and activism.”

By now funerals of those who died of AIDS were practically a daily occurrence and the gay community became increasingly angry at the delays in drug development. Recognising that the situation was desperate, Professor Cooper used his scientific and political clout to ensure that the bureaucratic system was overhauled and that treatment was fast-tracked to those in need. “He saw himself as a grounded advocate from the beginning,” said Watson.

Professor Cooper proceeded to take a leading role in international clinical drug trials, research that would ultimately lead to the development of combination therapy and the treatment breakthrough that many had long hoped for. Almost immediately the dying slowed and, over time, wards such as 17 South began to empty. “Since the late 1990s, the beds had been increasingly reallocated for other illnesses,” said Kelleher. The AIDS unit at St Vincent’s closed for good in 2007.

Professor Cooper’s role in the turnaround was pivotal. “David’s research made a significant contribution to curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS. His work saved so many lives,” said Professor Tony Cunningham, President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

Yet Professor Cooper’s work was far from done. Attention was turned to helping countries less fortunate than Australia. When it came to providing life-saving drugs, Professor Cooper was adamant that no-one would be left behind — no matter where they lived. Helping those most vulnerable was at the core of his life’s work. In his role as president of the International AIDS Society, Professor Cooper made it his mission to make a difference — the unifying theme was always that people should have access to the best available options for treatment and prevention, regardless of their social or personal circumstances.

During his illustrious career, Professor Cooper received many professional accolades, including the Order of Australia in 2003. Despite being internationally lauded as a leading HIV clinician, Professor Cooper continued to consult as a physician. “He was renowned for his compassion with each of his patients,” said Executive Director of the International AIDS Society, Owen Ryan. “That perfectly encapsulates the genuine heartfelt nature of who David was and how he approached his work. We are forever indebted to him for his vision, tenacity and humanity.”

Such examples of Professor Cooper’s humanity best sum up the measure of the man. “His personal devotion to the people most affected by the virus was extraordinary,” said Craig Cooper, CEO of Positive Life NSW. “Patients were his focus,” said Watson. “They gave him much inspiration over the years — and much humility. For that, we loved him.” Bill Paterson worked with Professor Cooper in Ward 17 South during the horror years of the mid-1980s. “He was always ‘David’,” said Paterson. “No matter who you were. Whenever anybody spoke of ‘David’, everybody knew who you meant.”

When the death of Professor Cooper was announced on Monday 19 March, there followed a torrent of tributes. “A giant”, “an influential figure”, “an internationally renowned leader”, “a true warrior” — and so on. There is no doubt that Professor Cooper was indeed a “giant” in the field of HIV/AIDS research, but perhaps the most moving accolade came from Paterson who spoke about a Swedish drama that documents the fear and ignorance that surrounded AIDS back in the day. Paterson described one particular scene that depicts two nurses dressed in heavy-duty, bio-protective clothing caring for a man dying of AIDS. When one nurse wipes a tear from his eye, the second nurse rebukes her by saying, "Don't ever wipe tears without gloves.”

“David,” explained Paterson, “wiped tears without gloves.”

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