jessica yu, philly.com (daily news) interviews 68-year-old john s. james, founder, AIDS treatment news, 2009 jonathan lax award winner (0095)

Chronicling AIDS treatment
Activist turned fear into help for others

By JESSICA YU
Philadelphia Daily News

yuj@phillynews.com 215-854-5218

chers—

john is one of my AIDS heroes. i would wait for the (snail)mail to arrive every week (it seemed) with the latest edition of AIDS treatment news in it. john’s insightful, focused writing and interviews kept me hanging on.

namaste

—rk

John S. James opens his Apple laptop in a West Philadelphia coffee shop to plumb 50,000 AIDS-related Web pages for any news worth posting to the information system that he’s devoted two decades to build.

He gets a notice about City Hall events for World AIDS Day, which is today, searches for credible AIDS stories and posts everything to a blog linked to AIDS Treatment News, the newsletter he created in 1986 that became such an authoritative source for patients that it was featured in a 1991 New York Times article.

He then works on a new fundraiser and follows up with organizers for a conference to be held in San Francisco in February.
It’s a typical day for James, a 68-year-old, self-effacing activist who became one of the most important figures in disseminating AIDS information. He’ll be honored for his work tomorrow night with this year’s Jonathan Lax Award, named after the late AIDS activist, at Philadelphia FIGHT’s “We Remember Gala.”

“We’re celebrating his stellar career as a provider of information,” said Jane Shull, director of Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS service organization. “He’s one of the first people to advance the awareness of treatments, carefully distributing information not only on research and policy issues but resources for the infected living in recovery homes and in jail.”

After graduating in 1963 from Harvard College, James headed to Washington, D.C., working for the National Institute of Health then began teaching at a community college.

Drawn by the allure of the counter culture emerging in California, he headed to San Francisco in the late ’60s. By the early ’80s, he had a scare.

“I had climate fatigue at the time, it was some kind of viral illness and I thought it might’ve been AIDS,” James said. “Those were the old days when HIV wasn’t known, just that a lot of people were getting sick and there were hardly survivors.

Once the HIV test was developed, he learned he hadn’t contracted the disease, but by then, he had enough information to pass along to others.

“I looked into which medicines slowed it down, which foods would help, which meds could speed it up,” James said. “I talked with doctors and patients to see what I could do for myself.”

He began writing about the disease in a local gay newspaper, then parlayed those contacts and that knowledge into AIDS Treatment News.

“If you can imagine an era before the Internet, John was the one-man Internet man where barriers came down,” said Julie Davids, who works for CHAMP, another local AIDS group. “The first time I visited San Francisco for a big AIDS conference, John had taken photos of the presentation at the conference, rushed home to project slides on a wall of his Castro town home, then got the information out to the people who couldn’t attend the conference.

“He has and continues to serve as a central reliable source of information for so many people.”

The AIDS Treatment newsletter has since folded, but these days, James, who moved to Philly in 2001, is mostly stationed between his West Philly home and coffee shops throughout the city.

He’s trying to piece together a more logical design for the blog and search engine that are the successors to the newsletter, and he’s looking for contributors to the site: aidsnews.blogspot.com.

“Our philosophy is to emphasize the living,” James said. “People can die of AIDS, but it’s not something that you should expect to take your life if you have access to medical treatment.”

Philadelphia FIGHT’s event will take place tomorrow at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at 128 N. Broad Street from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The event is open to the public and will benefit the Jonathan Lax Treatment Center, FIGHT’s HIV primary care clinic.

photo credit: John S. James, who started a AIDS Treatment newsletter, talks about his work during an interview at a coffee shop in West Philadelphia on November 30, 2009. James will be honored at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts this week. ( David Maialetti / Staff Photographer )

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