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Wistar Legacy Awards: Saluting Leaders in the Earliest Days of the AIDS Pandemic and Recognizing Their Lasting Legacy 25 Years Later

The Wistar Legacy Awards and 25th Jonathan Lax Lecture was a poignant night celebrating the people and organizations that 25 years ago came together from backgrounds in community activism, philanthropy, faith, government, law, and science to fight against the inequality, inaction and death that the AIDS pandemic brought to Philadelphia.

The virtual event, hosted by Dr. Luis Montaner, Herbert Kean, M.D., Family Professor; director, HIV-1 Immunopathogenesis Laboratory and leader, HIV Research Program, featured trailblazers that fought to bring top quality services and care to people with HIV/AIDS, prevent infection from those at-risk, and move HIV cure research forward. 

They included philanthropist Ken Nimblett, who remembered a time in the 80s and 90s when he and others worked “tirelessly against what HIV brought into this world”. Alongside mother-in-law Martha Stengel Miller and husband Rusty Miller, Ken continued the pledge his family made to invest in cutting-edge HIV science towards a cure. He said Martha and Rusty would be so proud to see the scientific accomplishments today that are global in reach.  

Philadelphia Foundation president & CEO Pedro Ramos spoke about how philanthropy, coupled with community advocacy, was critical to move the scientific needle forward and attaining larger federal funding, laying the groundwork for the major research programs we have today.

Bishop Ernest McNear spoke on behalf of Philadelphia FIGHT’s Board of Trustees about a truly fruitful partnership and shared vision that continues onward today. 

Then Philadelphia FIGHT chief executive director Jane Shull was lauded for her leadership saving countless lives and creating the many programs that Philadelphia FIGHT oversees to care for those with HIV/AIDS and their families.

Activist David Fair spoke to Shull’s community organizing days and his own focused on improving quality of life and preventing infection amongst those at risk. “Jane empowered people and not just to get them on Medicare, but she created a system of care for the at risk—they had an advocate.” He honored Shull as a hero of the city. 

Ronda Goldfein, Esq., echoed Fair’s words saying, “Those of us that work in HIV know the high quality and range of services can be traced to one person…Jane Shull. And that she lived by a simple moral code: every life is precious.”

Past Mayor of Philadelphia Reverend Dr. Wilson Goode called Shull a Renaissance woman and a “smart, creative, innovative, and bold person committed to solving problems others walked away from.” Adding, “She created a local model with national and international implications.” She began the FIGHT organization with $25K and today it runs on a $54M budget.

Jane Shull thanked her friends saying, “Each life is precious, and each death diminishes us all.”

Through Philadelphia FIGHT, the organization she helped build, she wanted to be closer to science and for women, black, LatinX people to get closer to access for clinical trials.

“The epidemic was not only in gay white men, but it also included many people in Philadelphia who were not really visible outside of their communities—where they were dying in great numbers,” said Shull.

She went on to say, “Ordinary people can take control of their lives and communities and decisions should be made by people for their communities.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, would follow in a pre-taped appearance and give his 25th Jonathan Lax Lecture. He hit home just how far HIV cure research has pushed the envelope in the last 20 years and how research continues to get closer to the eradication of HIV.

At the very end Dr. Pablo Tebas, professor of Medicine, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, joined Montaner to answer questions from the views about COVID-19 and HIV.

While everyone acknowledged the immense amount of work accomplished against HIV/AIDS these last 25 years of partnership with Wistar, there is still much to be done. But the fire burns bright in each and every one of the these game-changing leaders. Until the next 25.