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Responding to AIDS - Home   |    About this Exhibit - Introduction   |    AIDS Emerges   |    Poised to Respond   |    New Programs: Working Together   |    Responding to Fear   |    The AIDS Prevention Project   |    A Leader in Research, Education, and Housing
   |    Expanding Outreach   |    Needle Exchanges   |    The AIDS Omnibus Act: New Mandates   |    Safer Sex: The New Normal?   |    The Legacy   |    Gallery   |    Oral Histories    |    References and Resources

Poised to Respond

Seattle and King County were comparatively well prepared to face the onset of AIDS.



Seattle’s University of Washington Medical School was known for its research into sexually transmitted diseases. Some Public Health Department doctors were also associated with the medical school. One was Dr. Hunter Handsfield, head of Public Health’s STD program. In 1982 he was already studying a lymph-gland disorder that might relate to AIDS. Already a nationally recognized leader in STD research and prevention, Handsfield helped forge policies and made recommendations to the federal Centers for Disease Control for a national response to the emerging epidemic.

Dr. Robert Wood, AIDS Prevention Project Director (1985-2010) talks about how Public Health was able to work with the University and the community in responding to AIDS. (Oral history interview, August 2015.)

A History of STD Outreach

The Public Health Department had a long history (see right) of treating STDs. STD prevention and treatment programs included outreach to men who had sexual contact with other men.


Brochure targeted to gay men in the 1970s, before the emergence of AIDS [Series 11.6.7 – Clipping and press release files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health.] Click on the image to view the full brochure.

Still, some saw Public Health’s venereal disease clinic services as punitive in tone and insensitive to privacy needs. In 1982, to better understand and respond to the needs of the gay community, Public Health, with input from volunteers from the Seattle Gay Clinic, formed the STD Advisory Committee, focused on STD’s in gay men. Its membership drew from the Public Health Department, Seattle Gay Clinic, and the Dorian Group, a gay rights organization.

Local Support for Gay Rights and Gay Rights Activism

In some areas of the United States, hostility towards gay people slowed or undercut efforts to address the AIDS epidemic. This was less the case in Seattle. The city had passed civil rights ordinances that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in the 1970s. In 1978, citizens’ Initiative 13 sought to repeal these ordinances as they applied to gay people, but broad coalitions formed, and the measure was defeated at the polls by a margin of two to one. This experience of community members working together for common ends greatly helped Seattle and King County respond to the AIDS epidemic four years later.

To read more about the history of gay rights in the City of Seattle, see the Seattle Municipal Archives exhibit, The Gay Rights Movement and the City of Seattle in the 1970s.


Public Health: A History of Reaching Out To Those In Need

I have to really tip my hat to public health nurses, who are some of the most underappreciated people in the world, who welcomed me into their domain as a gay man, [and] who taught me a whole lot about how to provide quality care to people who were not used to getting quality care.
--Tim Burak on working in Public Health’s dental program in the 1970s and 1980s. The program served populations such as refugees, jail inmates, and low-income senior citizens. Experience reaching out to under-served communities also informed Public Health’s response to AIDS. (Oral history interview, July 2015.)


More On What Made Seattle-King County's Experience Different

Patricia McInturff, AIDS Prevention Project Division Manager. (Oral history interview, September 2015.)

Gary Goldbaum, AIDS Prevention Project Medical Director (1993). (Oral history interview, August 2015.)


From before 1890 until 1947, Seattle’s Department of Health and Sanitation was responsible for the control of sexually transmitted diseases in the region. Control techniques included contact tracing, anti-prostitution campaigns, hospitalization, and quarantine (in or out of jails).

World War II introduced new populations and social dynamics into the Seattle area, as well as the use of penicillin as a treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. This led to an enhanced postwar campaign by the newly unified (1947) Seattle-King County Department of Public Health. Intervention was based on education, detection, and treatment.
You might have seen this advertisement on a Seattle Transit bus in the 1940s and 1950s. From “The Road to Health,” 1954. Series 872, King County documents collection.

The department’s Venereal Disease Clinic won national attention with its idea of putting posters in public transit coaches with the message that quick and simple tests were available for VD, as well as quick and simple treatment. Rather than reinforcing the stigma of “social diseases,” post World War II outreach materials treated the problem in a cheery, scientific manner.


A cheery, scientific approach to VD testing. (1950) (Series 275.14.187 item 90.2.2726 – Photograph Files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health.) 

The Department sought to reach a new generation in the psychedelic imagery used to promote "Love Needs Care" outreach events staged during the 1960s.
Graphic from advertisement for STD prevention outreach event (Seatttle-King County Department of Public Health, ca. 1968.)


This April 1982 issue of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health's employee newsletter, The Carrier, announced the formation of an STD advisory group for gay men, with representatives from the department's STD clinic at Harborview Hospital, the Dorian Group, and the Seattle Gay Clinic (Series 1825.1.6 – History files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health: Prevention Division / HIV-AIDS Program.). Click on the image to view the full issue.

Tim Burak, AIDS Prevention Project Coordinator (1985-1995) and Seattle Gay Clinic volunteer, talks about the Clinic’s relationship with the Public Health Department before AIDS. (Oral history interview, July, 2015.) 

Next: New Programs: Working Together >>

Responding to AIDS

An exhibit and oral history project from the King County Archives.

Content warning: The archival records featured in this exhibit discuss sexual behavior and illegal drug use. Please direct questions or comments to

Copyright King County Archives, Seattle Washington, June 2016.




Please note: This exhibit features historical materials relating to HIV/AIDS. For current health information, please visit Public Health, Seattle & King County - HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention and Education.



Oral histories produced with support from a 2015 4Culture Heritage Projects Grant.