“Scraps of fabric grew into a monument to love,” the Oct. 11 Health & Science article about the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, took me back to Columbus Day weekend of 1988, when the quilt was displayed near the White House on the Ellipse. It was there that the names of people represented by the quilt panels were read aloud for the first time.
I had been conducting research on AIDS in the Soviet Union and was assisting the National Academy of Sciences’ then-Institute of Medicine in hosting the first-ever visit of leading Soviet AIDS scientists to the United States. Meetings were held for several days leading up to the Columbus Day weekend, but nothing had been planned for our visitors during that three-day break. Institute of Medicine officials asked me if I could show the Soviets around the District, and I offered to take them on a special tour of Washington based on a series of spectacular vistas that reveal what George Washington had in mind for the city.
The weather was wonderful, and we visited a number of sites; I planned the day so that the tour would end at the Ellipse. When we got to the Ellipse, the quilt covered much of the ground, and there was an immense quiet. Visitors spoke in hushed voices. I had special brochures on the quilt in Russian, but our guests spoke such perfect English that the brochures were more of a keepsake.
The Soviets were stunned. They said very little, but their eyes said plenty. When the scientists completed their visit to Washington, and before returning to the Soviet Union, they said that they had a different understanding of the United States than they had before or would have had without having seen the quilt.
Several decades of cooperation began between them and U.S. scientists on AIDS and associated problems. It was strongly supported by my old boss, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who would have been 100 years old in October and whose “Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” on which I worked, marks its 30th anniversary Saturday. Shared health concerns played a large role in developing better ties and cooperation with the former Soviet Union. As I wrote in a book, “Health diplomacy is the great leveler which brings countries together in common cause, fighting one of humanity’s most ancient and powerful foes: disease.”
Peter I. Hartsock, Laytonsville