Until this week, when I looked deeper into his background for my current Sun column, I did not know Dr. Robert Gallo’s origin story as a scientist. It was the death of his six-year-old sister, Judith, when Gallo was a boy in Connecticut, that launched his career in cancer and virus research. He went on to become one of the leading biomedical researchers in the world, the co-discoverer of HIV and a founder of both the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore and the Global Virus Network.
“For years, you know, Bob refused to make the connection between the death of his sister and his career,” Mary Jane Gallo, his wife, told The Washington Post in 1987. “He’d built a very high denial system. He didn’t want to appear to exploit her somehow, or to be histrionic. But there is a strong connection, and he feels it deeply.”
I did not know this for two reasons — I missed the referenced Post story, by David Remnick, in my background reading, and Gallo never brought it up in any of a dozen conversations we’ve had over the years. In fact, he has never talked much about himself. My interviews with this distinguished virologist have always been about the matter at hand — the threats of viral outbreaks, the pandemic, the need to educate and train more young people in virology, the work of the IHV and GVN.
But it’s a story worth knowing: That, out of the tragedy of a little sister’s death from leukemia came a career devoted to understanding and defeating certain cancers, AIDS and other diseases. One of Gallo’s early and most significant accomplishments at NIH was his discovery of the human retrovirus that causes a form of leukemia.