Last updated: December 13, 2019
Content warning: this page contains medical descriptions of HIV/AIDS symptoms that could be disturbing to some readers.
Robert Rayford’s life is mysterious; there are few records of his family, his personal interests, or even the location of his grave. Unfortunately, Rayford’s life and death have slipped into obscurity. Nonetheless, he remains an important figure in medical and social history as the first HIV/AIDS patient in the United States.
In 1968, the Black teenager admitted himself to the historic St. Louis City Hospital with unusual symptoms. Doctors were perplexed by Rayford's combination of various symptoms. He had been coping with swelling in his lower body and legs, shortness of breath, and a dangerously low immune system. He described experiencing these symptoms since at least 1966. Rayford was reserved and quiet. We may never know the details that Robert hid from his doctors about how he may have come into contact with the virus, or why he felt unsafe sharing this information.
Rayford’s doctors first suspected that he had contracted an exotic illness, but the teenager had never traveled outside of the Midwest, much less outside of the country. Rayford died in 1969. While he had endured many tests, medical professionals remained baffled at his death. The autopsy revealed another confusing clue: small, cancerous tumors throughout his body.
Rayford’s death remained a mystery for years. In the early 1980s, medical professionals started to notice similar cancerous tumors in other patients. These patients, like Rayford, demonstrated low immune systems. These lesions, called Kaposi’s sarcoma, were unusual in young people. During the AIDS epidemic, doctors recognized that young HIV patients were at a greater risk of suffering from these tumors. Connecting the dots, doctors investigated Rayford’s medical records and blood samples. In 1987, researchers found traces of the HIV virus in preserved samples of the teenager’s blood.
We can ask many questions about Robert Rayford’s death. How did Rayford contract the virus more than a decade before HIV/AIDS was identified and reached epidemic proportions in the 1980s? How many people had suffered and died from the mysterious disease before it was identified? Rayford’s story helps us better understand the complicated history of HIV/AIDS in the United States.
 The City Hospital Historic District in St. Louis, MO was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 2, 2001.
John Crewdson, “Case Shakes Theories of AIDS Origin,” Chicago Tribune, 25 October 1987
Al Hunter, “Robert Rayford: America’s First AIDS Victim,” The Weekly View Community Newspaper, 8 May 2014