Elizabeth Taylor, AIDS Pioneer, 1932-2011

By Paul Schindler

April 4, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor –– who for a majority of Americans was a towering international film star and celebrity for their entire life –– will also be remembered for her pioneering work in alerting the nation and the world to the urgency of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic.

According to amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, where Taylor served as the founding chair, the film star was first involved in HIV advocacy in December 1984, when she became a major donor to AIDS Project Los Angeles.

AmfAR quotes her, at that time, saying, "Well, I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."

The following year, Taylor joined the board of the National AIDS Research Foundation in Los Angeles. When that group soon thereafter merged with he New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation, founded by Dr. Mathilde Krim, to form amfAR (originally known as the American Foundation for AIDS Research), Taylor told Krim she wished to head up a national fundraising effort for the new group.

"Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility," amfAR quote her as saying. "If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so."

Beyond the pure symbolism of a person of her renown speaking out publicly on what in the 1980s was still a very controversial topic –– in many quarters, a hot potato –– amfAR credits her with a number of critical specific actions:

Her congressional testimony on behalf of the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, the first such comprehensive federal funding legislation, which today remains the primary source of money from Washington to fight the epidemic;

Her 1989 appearance in a Bangkok hospital shaking hands with AIDS patients, which was a potent tool in educating people throughout Southeast Asia about HIV and dispelling unfounded fears of those living with it;

And her 1996 World AIDS Day address to the United Nations General Assembly, calling for a more coordinated global attack on the virus.

In 2005, Taylor participated in a groundbreaking public relations campaign launched by amfAR chair Kenneth Cole titled “We All Have AIDS (If One of Us Does).”

From 1991 until her death, the actress ran the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which provides funding for groups fighting the epidemic across the US.

The Fox television station in Chicago, WFLD, reported, without specific attribution to a source, that Taylor’s will provides that her jewelry collection, which the station said is worth $600 million, be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to amfAR. The actress’ estate has not publicly confirmed that report, which has been widely picked up in the media.