French researcher Luc Montagnier, shared the Nobel medicine prize for his vital early discoveries on AIDS, but was later dismissed by the scientific community for his increasingly outlandish theories, notably on Covid-19.
Their achievement sped the way to HIV tests and antiretroviral drugs that keep the deadly pathogen at bay.
AIDS – acquired immune deficiency syndrome – first came to public notice in 1981, when US doctors noted an unusual cluster of deaths among young gay men in California and New York.
Montagnier had a bitter rivalry with US scientist Robert Gallo in his ground-breaking work in identifying HIV at the virology department he created in Paris in 1972.
Both are co-credited with discovering that HIV causes AIDS, and their rival claims led for several years to a legal and even diplomatic dispute between France and the United States.
Montagnier’s work started in January 1983, when tissue samples arrived at the Pasteur Institute from a patient with a disease that mysteriously wrecked the immune system.
He later recalled the “sense of isolation” as the team battled to make this vital connection.
“The results we had were very good but they were not accepted by the rest of the scientific community for at least another year, until Robert Gallo confirmed our results in the US,” he said.
The Nobel jury made no mention of Gallo in its citation.
In 1986 Montagnier shared the Lasker Award – the US equivalent of the Nobel – with Gallo and Myron Essex.
In 2011, to mark 30 years since the appearance of AIDS, Montagnier warned of the spiralling costs of treating the 33 million then stricken with HIV.
“Treatment cuts transmission, that’s clear, but it doesn’t eradicate it, and we can’t treat all the millions of people,” he told AFP.
Montagnier was born on August 8, 1932 at Chabris in the Indre region of central France.
After heading Pasteur’s AIDS department from 1991 to 1997, and then teaching at Queens College in New York, Montagnier gradually drifted to the scientific fringes, stirring controversy after controversy.
He repeatedly suggested that autism is caused by infection and set up much-criticised experiments to prove it, claiming antibiotics could cure the condition.
He stunned many of his peers when he talked of the purported ability of water to retain a memory of substances.
And he believed that anyone with a good immune system could fight off HIV with the right diet.
Montagnier supported theories that DNA left an electromagnetic trace in water that could be used to diagnose AIDS and Lyme’s Disease, and championed the therapeutic qualities of fermented papaya for Parkinson’s Disease.
‘Slow scientific shipwreck’
He repeatedly took up positions against vaccines, earning a stinging reprimand in 2017 from 106 members of the Academies of Sciences and Medicines.
The French daily Le Figaro described his journey from leading researcher to crank as a “slow scientific shipwreck”.
During the Covid pandemic he stood out again, stating that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was laboratory-made and that vaccines were responsible for the appearance of variants.
These theories, rejected by virologists and epidemiologists, made him even more into a pariah among his peers, but a hero to French anti-vaxxers.