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Alvin Novick (June 27, 1925 - April 10, 2005) was a Yale biologist who closed his laboratory in 1982 and curtailed his 25-year study of the sonar systems of bats to confront a widening international health crisis brought on by AIDS.
In 1982, with the growing AIDS crisis receiving scant political attention in the USA, Alvin Novick arranged a meeting with Bart Giamatti, the president of Yale University, New Haven, CT, to discuss a change of career. After more than two decades as a biologist researching the sonar systems of bats, he said he was determined to focus his energy on AIDS policy, advocacy, and ethics. It was a radical move, but Giamatti agreed, recalls Novick’s friend Stephen Stearns. It was the start of more than 20 years in which Novick devoted himself to the legal, ethical, and policy aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “He was an exceptional human being”, says Stearns, now chairman of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. “He had a remarkably strong moral sense, and was not afraid to do what he thought was the right thing to do, despite what the powers that be might have thought.”
Novick confronted officials with the realities of the disease among gay men, women, and drug users through the courses he taught, and through publications and letters. He was among the first to urge safeguards at blood banks and supported the establishment of needle exchanges. He also served on the Anti-viral Drugs Advisory Committee of the US Food and Drug Administration and on many US Public Health Service advisory committees. “What was critical about Al was that he was one of a very small group of physicians who had the credentials at that time to speak to government officials about HIV/AIDS on a professional-to-professional basis”, says Jeffrey Levi, associate professor of health policy at George Washington University, Washington, DC. He had a reputation for calling a spade a spade, his colleagues recall. “He was a man of great certitude and did not mince his words”, says Levi. “But he had a way of really confronting people about their prejudices without offending them.”
Novick served as President of what is now the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (formerly the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights) and edited the AIDS & Public Policy Journal. In addition, he co-founded AIDS Project New Haven, and Leeway, Connecticut’s only nursing home dedicated to the treatment of people with AIDS. “I met him 8 years ago . . . and can remember being very intimidated going to see him for the first time, because he was such a giant”, recalls Ellen Gabrielle, director of AIDS Project New Haven. “But once I got to know him, it became clear he was truly a gentle man.”
Alvin Novick was born in Flushing, NY, USA, on June 27, 1925, to Jewish immigrants in Flushing, Queens. He fought in Europe during World War II, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and spent 3 months as a prisoner of war in Germany. After the war, he graduated from Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, receiving his MD in 1951. But soon after he began working as a physician “he got fed up dealing with people who didn’t really have an illness but were just lonely and wanted someone to talk to”, says Stearns, who met Novick in 1965.
At that point, he put aside medicine and began researching the echolocation systems of bats with Donald Griffin, at Harvard. He spent a year travelling the world, cataloguing the diversity of ultrasound vocalisation in bats. In 1957, he joined Yale University as an assistant professor, becoming a recognised expert in echolocation. Novick wrote a popular book, The World of Bats, and also authored the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on bats. But it is perhaps for his leadership in HIV/AIDS policy, and for the influence his popular courses had on students, that Novick will be most remembered. “He sensitised generations of students to a way of looking at the world that might not have happened otherwise”, says Stearns. “He didn’t speak often, but when he did he had something important to say and people listened.”
In 1987, Novick told The New York Timesthat there was no reason for people to see AIDS as an embarrassment or a humiliation. “We have to stop seeing this as anything other than a devastating infection”, he said. “No one is guilty. Only the virus is guilty.”
Novick died on April 10, 2005, at Yale University Health Services in New Haven. He was 79. The cause was prostate cancer, said a close friend, Frederick L. Altice, an associate professor of medicine at Yale. Novick is survived by a wide circle of close friends, including Frederick Altice, with whom he shared a house for the last 10 years of his life. Novick’s life partner, William Sabella, died of AIDS complications in 1992.
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