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William “Bill” Haseltine (Right) greets Burroughs High School Classmate Jim Falgatter of Ridgecrest during a 50th BHS Class Reunion 2012. / Laura Austin Photo

Dr. William Haseltine, former BHS grad, successfully headed AIDS research

By Bruce Auld News Review Staff Writer–

Dr. William Haseltine, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rebekka Armstrong

Amazon recently informed its print authors that a price increase is forthcoming. I planned to publish an electronic edition of the Mighty Burros in July anyway. Now I am motivated even more to get that done. There will be a few new profiles, including one on Rebekka Armstrong.

Rebekka Armstrong, BHS, was among the first celebrities to publicly announce she was HIV-positive. Courtesy Photo

Rebekka was raised in Ridgecrest. She was a member of the Burroughs Class of 1985. She left Burroughs before commencement to escape a very challenging family circumstance. She was one of the first celebrities to announce that she was HIV-positive publicly. She survived AIDS, but likely only through the steadfast work of fellow Burro, Dr. William Haseltine (BHS 1962), and actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor. In 1985, Dr. Haseltine and Elizabeth Taylor, in person, in the US Capitol, successfully lobbied Congress to fund research to treat AIDS. Rebekka successfully endured the rigors of that first course of treatment. It is estimated that some 200 million lives were saved by Dr. Haseltine and Elizbeth Taylor’s steadfast persuasion, including Rebekka.

A 1962 graduate of Burroughs High School, Dr. William Haseltine has granted me permission to include the following excerpts from his autobiography, My Lifelong Fight Against Disease, From Polio and AIDS to COVID-19.

“In July 1985, I was vacationing with my family at Mount Desert Island, just off the coast of Maine. I was anything but relaxed. In fact, I was living a waking nightmare. A professor of Medical Sciences at Harvard Medical School and director of two research laboratories at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I was one of the world’s few experts on the AIDS Virus, HIV. I knew a tidal wave of lethal disease was descending on an unprotected world. The problem was research funding. As the 1986 Congressional funding cycle was coming to a close, news broke that Hollywood superstar, Rock Hudson, was returning from France after undergoing experimental treatment for AIDS, a drug I knew would fail. Yet Rock Hudson’s tragedy would bring AIDS “out of the shadows” and into the headlines.

Following the news about Rock Hudson, AIDS became front-page news. Time Magazine, Newsweek, and USA Today were all eager to interview me, and live appearances followed on NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America. I knew that an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, a descent into a deteriorating immune system, cancers, viral hepatitis, and cardiovascular disease, and there were no drugs to treat it. Yet, we had a blueprint of the virus, just seven enzymes that the virus cannot live without. Stop one enzyme, stop anyone of these enzymes, and the virus will be contained.”

US actress Elizabeth Taylor attends a gala at the Paradis Latin organized for the fight against AIDS, on November 11, 1985, in Paris. (PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)

The 1986 federal budget added $1 million to meager AIDS research funding. Enter Elizabeth Taylor, a good friend of Rock Hudson. Dr. Haseltine and Elizabeth Taylor had become friends, as well. Together, they would orchestrate a team of medical research lobbyists and medical foundation philanthropists. Elizabeth Taylor had been married to Senator John Warner. She requested a meeting with Senators Warner, Ted Kennedy, Henry Waxman, Barry Goldwater, Ted Stevens, Daniel Inouye, and Jesse Helms, “the Old Dogs” in the US Senate. Before the meeting, Elizabeth Taylor asked Dr. Haseltine to promise that he would answer “yes” to four questions. Dr. Haseltine agreed. The four questions and answers are on page twelve of Dr. Haseltine’s autobiography. On that epic day, $260 million in AIDS research funding was secured, augmented by an additional $60 million transfer from the Pentagon budget. In 2020, some $2.5 billion was budgeted for AIDS-related research, and 200 million lives were saved and counting. Utilizing the Kennedy-Stevens supplemental bill to the 1986 federal budget, Dr. Haseltine and Elizabeth Taylor provided for the beginnings of AIDS treatment.

Before their successful federal funding endeavor, Dr. Haseline, a virologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of two research laboratories at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was a leader on the AIDS team from the time the virus was first identified. There was great celebration when in 1986, the drug AZT had miraculous results in blocking HIV growth, only to experience almost universal relapses due to mutations. As with his years of experience with cancer treatments, Dr. Haseltine concluded that multiple drug treatments would be required, earning him the nickname “Dr. Combination.”

“Far-sighted research paid off in the early 1980s, and, as millions of people with AIDS living normal lives likely would agree, far-sighted research has continued to pay off. It will continue to pay off if we as a country recommit to supporting our best and brightest scientists.” (Dr. William Haseltine)

Rebekka and Dr. Haseltine have never met, yet the two Burros are forever connected by happenstance.

In 1992, Dr. Haseltine took a sabbatical and a two-year leave of absence from Harvard and Dana-Farber to become the CEO of the biotechnical start-up Human Genome Services. Under his leadership, Human Genome Services partnered with multiple pharmaceutical companies in developing genome-based drugs and treatments. At his departure, Human Genome Services was valued near $2 billion.

Dr. Haseltine invested his entrepreneurial wealth by creating ACCESS Health International, a think tank and advisory group, “to improve access to high-quality, affordable healthcare for all, no matter their age or where they live.” Dr. Haseltine maintains a complete research and publishing schedule a decade after retirement. He is a frequent contributor to Forbes Magazine.