30 Years of AIDS: 6,200 Iconic Posters, 100 Countries, 1 Collector

Could you talk more about Dr. Koop and his impact?

He was a very fine man, and he left a great legacy. I went to a conference in Washington several years ago now, 15 probably, about AIDS at the National Library of Medicine. Surgeon General Koop was one of the speakers. He said that, in cabinet meetings, there were two circles of people. There's the first team that sits around the table and the second team that sits behind, around the edge of the room. Mr. Reagan was sitting at the head of the table, and he never mentioned AIDS publicly for quite a while. This would have been around the spring of 1986, five years after the epidemic started. [In one meeting,] Mr. Reagan announced that he had instructed the surgeon general to issue a report on AIDS. Dr. Koop was sitting in the back row and he said, "It was lucky that I was awake and listening because that was the first I heard about it." In all the years he was surgeon general, Mr. Reagan never spoke directly to him, which I found just unbelievable.

So he listened, and he issued a report in October 1986 that was very different from what Mr. Reagan had hoped for. As I said, it blew the lid off the thing and it made a sea change in the approach to AIDS worldwide. He said it's best to be abstinent but the only protection you have right now is using condoms. That was the essence of the message. That would rank along with discovering the virus and discovering a test for the virus, I think.

And it's still a valid message today.

Oh, absolutely. But, of course, Mr. Reagan wasn't too pleased with that.

What do you think did he have in mind when he asked for that report?

I think the Reagans' approach about most things was "just say no." If you remember Mrs. Reagan speaking of drugs, her advice to people taking drugs was "just say no." That's a fine idea but it just doesn't work. It's like telling people who smoke not to smoke. If you're hooked, you're hooked.

So he wanted an abstinence approach as opposed to a harm-reduction or prevention approach?

That would be my guess, yes. I'm not sure, but that was certainly their general attitude.

Some of the posters are really heated. Could you talk more about the climate back then?

They needed to be that way because the government was really dragging its feet, especially Mr. Reagan, and there was this major epidemic growing in the United States. I'm sure it probably had something to do with the fact that it started out as a gay disease, and that was not a topic that was generally spoken about in public. When we have a flu epidemic, there's no waiting. They're right on top of it the minute the first case appears. But now our attitude has changed considerably so I don't think that would be true today. Stuff we see on TV now is totally different from stuff we saw 50 years ago or even 30 years ago. It reminds me of a story a few years ago about the young man who went into the drugstore and said, "[shouts] Give me a pack of condoms [whispers] and a pack of cigarettes."

And before it was the other way around.

Yes, I guess you can say that.

Who were these posters intended for?

To be perfectly honest, I have never figured out exactly whom they were addressing. I know whom they think they were addressing just from looking at the posters, but I saw very few posters posted. I'm sure that the gay posters were probably put up in gay bars and bathhouses and places like that, but there were an awful lot of posters that weren't gay posters. In fact, the majority were not, and I rarely saw them anywhere. And this is true not only in this country but in other countries as well. Either they didn't get posters or I didn't go to places where there were posters.

Do you have a favorite poster?

My favorites were the ones that used humor and double entendres. There was a pair of posters I came by two to three years ago that I thought were wonderfully subtle and catchy. They're about the size of a typewriter page. One of them shows a blue rooster and the other one shows a cat on it. Underneath the first poster, it says, "COVER YOUR" and nothing else. For the cat, it says, "PROTECT YOUR" and nothing else.


Images displayed were shared by the University of Rochester's Rare Books and Special Collections Library.


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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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