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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


1 January 2013 to 30 June 2019

Men who have sex with men currently experience a disproportionately high prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and make up the diverse group understood to be most at risk of becoming infected with HIV in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Yet very little historical research to date has attempted to contextualise the shifts in medical knowledge and disease surveillance leading to this present understanding, or to investigate health promotion efforts involving this group before 1980.

The Before HIV project aims to understand how, from the 1930s onward, gay men, other men who had sex with men, and trans people increasingly became the focus of public-health efforts to control sexually transmitted infections – or, in the language of the time, venereal disease. The project, which focuses on Canada, the United States, and England, is also investigating how these individuals experienced sexual health and illness before the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Employing a methodologically rich approach – archival research supplemented by questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews – the 'Before HIV' project will consolidate our understanding of the factors giving rise to the current public health situation and anchor existing work on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a broader historical framework.

The project is directed by Dr Richard A. McKay and funded by the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charity, as part of the Trust's Humanities and Social Sciences research fellowship scheme. The project has received approvals from the Ethics Committee of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge; from the London – City and East NHS Research Ethics Committee; and from the Health Research Authority. Partnering organisations include the Terrence Higgins Trust (UK), Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (US), and Health Initiative for Men (Canada).