Before It Had a Name

Talking with Joyce Wallace, the first doctor to study AIDS in women

Dr. Joyce Wallace and her staff were some of the first in the world to study AIDS in women. At her Greenwich Village clinic in early 1981, she found two cases of Karposi's Sarcoma, a disease estimated to appear just once in 10 million people per year. AIDS did not yet have a name, but Joyce saw in the two cases hints of an epidemic, and jumped in her car with a bag of condoms and syringes. Over the next twenty years, most of them with New York City prostitutes, Joyce forged a new and gritty front in the study of AIDS. Burnt out by death, she now works with developmentally disabled adults.

What made you want to get in a car—and go after women? This wonderful cancer institute gave me $25,000 to study the relationship between anal sex and the new disease, and t-cells ratios. Way back in '83. I started looking for rectal sex in women but I couldn't find enough women who had promiscuous rectal sex, that is with many, many partners.

I can't find them either. I had like 10, 11 women and it wasn't enough of a sample to be meaningful, so I called the people who gave me the grant and said, "Look, can I use the rest of the money to study prostitutes?" They said, "Go ahead." That's the only way you can do groundbreaking work, is if you already have money at hand. You can use it the way that you think is best and of course the government doesn't allow that. You have to be judged by so many committees. But that's how I got my first group of prostitutes. I went out in my car. First I went with a boyfriend on Eleventh Avenue, which was a stroll.

Wallace: "You see that woman over there? She's not really crazy but she'll pay you $20 if you let her draw blood." That's how I got my first clients.
photo: Daniel Susott
Wallace: "You see that woman over there? She's not really crazy but she'll pay you $20 if you let her draw blood." That's how I got my first clients.

Eleventh and what? In the [West] 20s through all the approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel. I would go up to them and they would walk away. What are they there for? To see me? So I sent this boyfriend and he would go up to them and say, "You see that woman over there? She's not really crazy but she'll pay you $20 if you let her draw blood." That's how I got my first clients. It was very hard to get the first couple but then they told their friends, "She's not really so crazy, she'll just draw your blood. It doesn't hurt."

Tell me about the progression of your car. After the boyfriend, I used a car service. Nobody ever threatened me, so after a while I went out by myself. One time I took my son in the car. Well, he was a fabulous lure. I mean this cute little two-year-old in the back of the car, and all the girls came over and said, "What a cute little boy, isn't he wonderful—you can take my blood now." In '87 or '88 I got a gift from the Ansell Condom people of a van. I really needed it, because my back was killing me trying to take blood from a car seat. It was more mobile, more efficient.

The federal government didn't want us to give money to women as a reward, and I didn't think we could get them to step forward without being rewarded. It's a population that's working and at work you have to produce something. Like money. So we gave them $20 in McDonald's coupons for giving their blood and another $20 so they would come back and get their results. Word spread that we would help them if they came back as positive. We got them diagnosed so they could get housing from the New York City Department of Welfare. They loved that somebody from middle class white America was interested in them. I really came to feel the despair and pain that so many women had. Women do not choose to leave the streets easily because the evil they know is better than the evil they don't know.

 
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