Letter to Magic Johnson thanking him for his participation on the Commission

June E. Osborn: At the Center of National Policy on AIDS

By Gregory Pike and John Rees

A new archival collection, June E. Osborn Papers, 1954–2001, is now available at the National Library of Medicine for those interested in AIDS history and the federal government’s early response efforts. Osborn was an expert advisor in urgent health and medical issues—including AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), virology, infectious diseases, vaccines, and public health policy—for numerous government agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as Chair of the National Commission on AIDS.

Formal portrait of June E. Osborn
June E. Osborn

For more than 30 years, Dr. June E. (Elaine) Osborn has published research and served as expert advisor on a number of urgent health and medical issues and worked with a number of national and international organizations. Her impact was most heavily felt during the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the disease that became known as AIDS. She was chairman of the National Commission on AIDS from 1989–1993, a member of the Global Commission on AIDS, and wrote numerous articles and gave many speeches on AIDS, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and the accompanying public health and policy issues.

Osborn was born May 28, 1937 in Endicott, New York to Leslie Varmus, then a professor of psychiatry, and Dora Wrist, a professor in childhood education at the University of Buffalo. In 1950, the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where her father became director of the state’s mental hygiene department and professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and her mother began a second career as a psychiatric social worker. Along with her older sister, Osborn was groomed to challenging careers for women at that time. After studying chemistry at Oberlin College in Ohio, Osborn realized she was better suited to a career in medicine, not as a physician, but as a professor and researcher.

She began medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1957. It was while working with Dr. Frederick C. Robbins, who shared the 1954 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on the virus that causes polio, that she too decided to focus on virology. After graduating from medical school, Osborn worked as an intern and resident in Harvard hospitals in Boston, and in 1964, began two years of research on viruses at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania. In 1966 she moved back to Madison to join the faculty of the University of Wisconsin medical school with appointments in microbiology and pediatrics. In 1975, she was appointed associate dean for biologic sciences at the University of Wisconsin Graduate School, and then in 1984, became Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.

By the 1970s, the Administration of President Richard M. Nixon had begun opening doors for women to serve as scientific advisors to the government, a position that suited Osborn completely. While dealing with diseases such as influenza, hepatitis, and polio in the 1970s and early 1980s, Osborn served an advisor on vaccines to the CDC, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The government soon sought Osborn’s help with the horrifying epidemic known as AIDS. By 1983, the first AIDS cases were being reported among people who had received transfusions of blood or blood products. In January 1984, the NIH asked Osborn to chair a special committee to help create policies for dealing with HIV and the nation’s blood supply. She helped draw up guidelines for testing donated blood that the protected the privacy of donors while making the U.S. blood supply much safer.

Osborn’s role in combating AIDS continued to grow. In 1988 she became a member of the WHO’s Global Commission on AIDS and then one year later in 1989, the members of the National Commission on AIDS, elected her as their chairperson. The commission, an independent agency commissioned by Congress, was to advise the President and them on the AIDS epidemic and national policy.

Perhaps the most recognizable member of the National Commission on AIDS, was former NBA star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson.  Documents relating to his service on the commission illustrate some of the aspirations and internal conflicts the commission debated about its role and purpose, as well as its relationship with the White House, which had its own agenda.

A letter to June Osborn thanking her for participating in a broadcast.
Letter from Ted Koppel, 1992.
MS C 618, box 1 folder 32

The commission generated numerous reports (most of which were topical), and were designed to be easily understood and reported on. The commission also held hearings in sites across the country (many of which were televised) as it gathered data and listened to witnesses. The commission’s work culminated in their final report to the President and Congress in 1993 entitled, AIDS: An Expanding Tragedy.

Following her work with the commission, Osborn continued to serve as an AIDS and society advisor to the National Institutes of Health and worked with the WHO’s Johnathan Mann and his Global AIDS Policy Coalition. Other positions included membership of the governing council of the Institute of Medicine (1995–2000), membership in the Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected in 1994) and the presidency of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation (1996–2007).

Dr. Osborn has also been an active member of the boards of the Corporation for Supportive Housing in New York, the Legal Action Center in New York, and the Center for Health Care Strategies in Princeton, New Jersey. She has also chaired the Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy, an organization based at Brown University that brings a medical perspective to the United States substance abuse policy. Today, she is President Emerita at the Macy Foundation and Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan.

A letter printed on a dot matrix printer, with the ACTUP logo on it.
Letter from ACT UP, 1990. Letters like this show the public’s ongoing frustration with the national response to the AIDS epidemic.
MS C 618, box 1 folder 32

The bulk of the June E. Osborn collection documents Dr. Osborn’s policy advisory work on HIV and AIDS on both the national and international level during the 1980s. This is reflected across most of the organizational series particularly Series II: Chairman, National Commission on AIDS, which includes the commission’s official reports, transcripts of its hearings before Congress, legislation it helped enact, meetings it attended, and especially the correspondence between its members and letters received from the general public and interest groups. It is also shown in Series IV: International Advisory Activities, Series V: Speeches, Lectures, and Testimonies, and Series VI: Writings. Her papers complement NLM’s National Commission on AIDS collection which mostly contains the bureaucratic published output of the Commission such as briefing books and hearing transcripts.

The collection also contains Audiovisual Materials (Series VII) including many of the NCA press conferences on the state of the disease as well as her appearance on national news shows to talk about AIDS, policies, and treatments.

A smaller part of the collection documents other public health concerns she dealt with including influenza, vaccine safety, and the safety of blood products, mostly while serving as advisor to the CDC and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the 1970s-1980s: this material is found in Series III: Other National Advisory Activities.  And Series I: Personal and Biographical, primarily contains articles and clippings on Dr. Osborn and subject files relating to her numerous awards and honors (including several honorary doctorates in science).

Gregory Pike, MLS, is a Contract Digital Archivist for the Digital Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. He works for History Associates Inc.

John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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