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An Introduction to the Harry Adamson Papers: Collection 3547

By Sarath Pillai

In the early 1980s, it was assumed that those infected with HIV had about six months to two years left. The life of Harry Adamson (1949-2021), a Philadelphia-based gay rights activist, restaurant manager, and social worker, proved that assumption wrong. Adamson became infected with HIV as early as February 1982; his body became a site for trying the then-promising Salk AIDS Vaccine. His is a story of the trials and tribulations of HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s through the 2000s.

Adamson was born in Kansas City and earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Rockhurst College. After working as a waiter and mercantile agent in Kansas City and Chicago, Adamson accompanied his partner David Yontz, a physician, to Philadelphia in 1981, where he was to study at Temple University. Yontz was a friend of John Fryer, a professor at Temple and a pioneering gay rights activist whose voluminous papers are also at HSP. They both moved into Fryer’s house in Germantown soon after arriving in Philadelphia. Yontz went back to Ohio after earning his degree, but Adamson never left the city and forged a life-long friendship with Fryer, the city, and its gay and restaurant community. Adamson not only settled Fryer’s estate but was also instrumental in donating Fryer’s papers to HSP in the early 2000s. In 1985, Adamson was recruited as one of the first five people to work as an HIV tester and counselor at the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force under the Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives (PCHA, now the Mazzoni Clinic), the first and the only free testing site in Philadelphia at the time. Adamson distinguished himself by managing one of the first HIV hotlines in the country, where he received hundreds of calls daily as well as a hotline dedicated to teens.

Adamson’s papers, extending to 20 boxes, tell us in vivid detail how medicalized the lives of HIV-infected people were; the records document the nagging uncertainty about their lives, the constant negotiation of the changing insurance and Medicare landscapes, and the increasing costs of medical care. Adamson had to continually get certified by his doctors to be able to get disability benefits and had to take at least a dozen tablets every day. Adamson was fortunate to have been treated by the legendary John Turner (who put him on Salk Vaccine) and Stephen Hauptmann, whom he credited as responsible for his longevity. His papers include many medical reports and correspondence with these doctors.

Besides the medical and legal papers, there are two sets of materials that make his collections especially noteworthy. First, Adamson maintained a dream journal throughout his life, where he wrote about his dreams in vivid detail. This journal, which he didn’t want to be open until he died, tells us about the man and his life more than any other part of this collection. A large number of these dreams are about his romantic and sexual partners, and memories of places and people. These dreams cover a period of thirty years, from the 1970s to the 2000s, during which the most important developments in his life took place.

Second, he was an obsessive collector of materials relating to HIV/AIDS and the people who died of it in Philadelphia. His papers show us various newspaper and magazine articles about the changing treatment regimens for HIV-infected people and the hopes and frustrations each new vaccine and scientific development brought in its wake.

While histories of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s have largely been written from sites like New York and San Francisco, these papers show us that Philadelphia was an equally important place in the story of the AIDS pandemic and gay rights.

View the catalog record for the Harry E. Adamson Papers here.

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