As we celebrate the contributions of important Italian Americans, we should recognize Robert Gallo, an explorer of the world of science who co-discovered HIV and proved that it causes AIDS.
Imet Gallo at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s. His work in virology and mine in immunology sometimes overlapped. Then, as now, he was a fast talker and an even faster thinker. You could learn more about virology in a 15-minute conversation with him than in 100 hours of reading. He reminded me of some of the guys in my old neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn — cocky, effusive, whip-smart, sometimes profane.
Gallo is a proud first-generation Italian American born to immigrant parents in Waterbury, Conn. He was inspired to go into medicine by his sister’s death from childhood leukemia, and he was trained as a physician before turning to his true passion, basic research.
In 1976, he and his colleagues discovered a substance that enabled scientists to grow and study key white blood cells, called T-cells. That, in turn, led to his identification of human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 — the first virus linked to certain human leukemias and lymphomas— and ultimately to his co-discovery of HIV. In 1983, French researchers first identified the virus, but Gallo proved definitively that it causes AIDS. Furthermore, he rapidly pioneered the development of the HIV blood test for identifying infected individuals and protecting the blood supply.
For his work, Gallo has twice been awarded the prestigious Lasker Award, the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is one of the most creative biomedical research scientists and impressive intellects of my generation. I am proud to count him as a colleague and friend.
We have a long tradition of meeting for dinner at an Italian restaurant — Positano’s in Bethesda is among our favorites— where we share a bottle of pinot grigio and talk about science. He maintains the enthusiasm of a graduate student and can make our conversations feel like they did so many years ago when we were young scientists at NIH.