In 2018, criticized for his anti-conformist theories – DNA can be “teleported” by electromagnetic waves picked up by water, for example – a provocateur Luc Montagnier declared to Le Monde: “I don’t have to be ashamed of what I do. The discovery of the AIDS virus saved millions of lives. I have the authority. His peers reacted to such claims with dismay. But even his worst detractor will not dispute Montagnier’s assertion that the discovery of AIDS secures him a place in the galaxy of medical greats.
In his autobiographical essay for the 2008 Nobel Prize, Montagnier – who died on Tuesday – describes how seeing his grandfather suffer from cancer prompted him to study medicine. In 1983, he was approached by a clinician in Paris to examine a patient who showed the first signs of the mysterious new disease which was turning into a public health crisis. Montagnier was among the few virologists to suspect that the disease – then dubbed the “gay plague” in several circles – was caused by a retrovirus, a pathogen that slips into the host’s DNA and takes control of it. His team’s research has paved the way for the development of HIV tests and therapies for AIDS. But Montagnier found himself embroiled in a bitter conflict with American virologist Robert Gallo, with whom he had once shared notes – and camaraderie. Gallo had examined samples from the same patient as Montagnier and also concluded that the disease was caused by a retrovirus. The debate turned into a public row over who had discovered HIV and an acrimonious patent litigation on a crucial blood test on AIDS patients ensued. The case required the intervention of the American and French presidents.
Montagnier has drawn ire from his peers of late for questioning Covid vaccination and peddling pseudoscience. But the world will know him best as a virologist whose work unraveled HIV and helped to suppress misinformation about AIDS.