BOSTON -- In 1980, as a cancer specialist at UCLA, Dr. Jerome E. Groopman saw one of the first patients to be diagnosed with AIDS, a case reported in a historic scientific article describing the new disease.

In the eight years since, Groopman has become an internationally known AIDS researcher and one of the foremost authorities on the evolving treatment of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He has established New England's largest AIDS treatment center at Boston's New England Deaconess Hospital. He personally cares for about 60 AIDS patients, supervises a laboratory and serves on various National Institutes of Health advisory committees on AIDS issues.

"I must have seen, maybe, 300 people die in the last five years," he said. "I know I have the personality and the strength to absorb a lot of this because that's why I became an oncologist. The question is, is this so overwhelming and so continuous {that} it's going to destroy people?"

Tall, bony and bearded, Groopman looks a bit like an Old Testament prophet, and he draws on Jewish tradition in contemplating the epidemic. He is fascinated by the legend of the lamed vav zaddikim or 36 righteous men, which he encountered in a novel by Andre Schwarz-Bart, "The Last of the Just."

"It talks about the myth that there are people in the world who absorb the suffering and the evil. They don't even know that this is what they are doing but because of their existence, the world continues," he said. "The problem with this role is that almost invariably, they are consumed by it." He laughed. "Frankly, I'm not interested in being a lamed vav."

His fascination with the science underlying AIDS infection provides a kind of refuge. And he relies heavily on his family. He said he knows other AIDS doctors for whom religion provides an explanation, perhaps a justification of what is happening, but it does not do so for him.

"I don't see religion as a rationalization," he said. "If anything, this is an accusation against God or the universe. Why are 30-year-old people dying left and right of what is really a horrible illness?"