A historical reflection on the discovery of human retroviruses

Retrovirology. 2009 May 1;6:40. doi: 10.1186/1742-4690-6-40.


The discovery of HIV-1 as the cause of AIDS was one of the major scientific achievements during the last century. Here the events leading to this discovery are reviewed with particular attention to priority and actual contributions by those involved. Since I would argue that discovering HIV was dependent on the previous discovery of the first human retrovirus HTLV-I, the history of this discovery is also re-examined. The first human retroviruses (HTLV-I) was first reported by Robert C. Gallo and coworkers in 1980 and reconfirmed by Yorio Hinuma and coworkers in 1981. These discoveries were in turn dependent on the previous discovery by Gallo and coworkers in 1976 of interleukin 2 or T-cell growth factor as it was called then. HTLV-II was described by Gallo's group in 1982. A human retrovirus distinct from HTLV-I and HTLV-II in that it was shown to have the morphology of a lentivirus was in my mind described for the first time by Luc Montagnier in an oral presentation at Cold Spring Harbor in September of 1983. This virus was isolated from a patient with lymphadenopathy using the protocol previously described for HTLV by Gallo. The first peer reviewed paper by Montagnier's group of such a retrovirus, isolated from two siblings of whom one with AIDS, appeared in Lancet in April of 1984. However, the proof that a new human retrovirus (HIV-1) was the cause of AIDS was first established in four publications by Gallo's group in the May 4th issue of Science in 1984.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • France
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Retroviridae / isolation & purification*
  • Retroviridae Infections / history*
  • Retroviridae Infections / virology*
  • United States
  • Virology / history*