Philadelphia FIGHT and Jane Shull honored for work in HIV research and care

In recognition of deep-rooted contributions to HIV research, education and care, The Wistar Institute will present its Legacy Awards to Philadelphia FIGHT; Jane Shull, chief executive director of Philadelphia FIGHT; Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health; philanthropist Ken Nimblett and the Miller family; and the Philadelphia Foundation, which facilitates charitable investment in the economic, civic and social facets of Philadelphia. 

The Wistar Institute will honor the awardees at a virtual ceremony on Oct. 28, where Dr. Fauci will deliver the 25th Annual Jonathan Lax Memorial Lecture recounting advances in HIV research and the NIH’s role in boosting funding for cure-directed trials. Additional speakers include HIV/LGBTQ+ activist David Fair, who co-founded Lavender Health (currently the Mazzoni Center) and started the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office; Ronda Goldfein, Esq., activist and executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania; and Rev. Doctor W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia and current director and CEO of the Amachi Program, a mentoring program for children with incarcerated parents. 

“I’m moved by being able to honor Jane because she has been working in venues trying to deal with AIDS since at least 35 years, and hasn’t really gotten much credit or attention for the amazing work she’s been doing all this time,” Fair said. 

FIGHT has been collaborating with the Wistar Institute for the last 25 years, serving as a bridge between Philadelphians living with HIV and the medical science team at Wistar.  

“I think that having a community partner that is as passionate about advancing research together, as Jane and FIGHT have been to our HIV research effort, is really the only reason we have succeeded,” said Dr. Luis Montaner, leader of the HIV Research Program at The Wistar Institute, and co-principal investigator of the BEAT-HIV Delaney Collaboratory.

Prior to FIGHT’s inception in 1990, Shull organized the Neighborhood Summit on AIDS in 1988, an event that increased HIV/AIDS awareness throughout Philadelphia neighborhoods. The summit helped break down the stereotype that AIDS affected only white gay men and that the disease permeated all communities.  

“Because of [the summit,] there were pastors, there were thought captains and neighborhood people caring about AIDS and understanding that it was impacting their own communities,” Fair said.  

Dr. John Turner, endocrinologist and out gay man who was working with a lot of AIDS patients at the time, originally founded FIGHT. He brought the medical expertise to the operation, and Shull offered him her administrative services. Although she first set her sights on coordinating programs, she eventually became the director of the organization. 

The initial purpose of FIGHT was to bring clinical trials in HIV research to Philadelphia. In realizing that goal, Shull was one of the first people in the U.S. to make a concerted effort to help include people of color and people living in poverty in those trials. Until that point, most of the trials in the U.S. were taking place in San Francisco and New York with mostly white gay men as participants.

“I thought that if there wasn’t somebody there who was absolutely committed to seeing to it that women got to participate and that African Americans, Latinx, everybody else got to participate, it wouldn’t happen,” Shull said. “I think that that has been one of the impacts of FIGHT over the years. We’ve always offered research and we do provide services to everybody regardless of what group you’re a part of; we try to have services to everybody.”

In the early days of FIGHT, Fair ran the organization We the People, which had a drop-in center where people experiencing homelessness and living with HIV would go, including people of color and people who relied on survival sex work. Fair directed some of those people into the community organizing initiatives that Shull was leading through FIGHT. 

One such initiative is Project TEACH, which trains people living with HIV, especially people of color and those experiencing poverty, to educate underserved communities about HIV treatment and prevention, and promote HIV awareness and advocacy. 

“[Project TEACH] was one of the real breakthroughs in Philadelphia in that the majority of the classes were African American, some Latinx and very few white people,” Shull said. “We were kind of evening the scales. There had been a billion programs that didn’t care about that distinction.”

Goldfein of AIDS Law Project opined that the driving force behind Shull’s work in HIV awareness and care is the fundamental notion that each life is worth fighting for. 

“Jane has been a force for people with HIV for more than 30 years,” Goldfein said. “I think that she has been able to do that because she’s kind of adhered to a really basic thought, which is [that] every life is precious. She used to have that included in her email signature. The more I have thought about Jane, I realized that that’s really a core value that she has, and a core value that she has brought to Philadelphia FIGHT.” 

That core value took shape in the form of catering FIGHT’s services to the individual needs of its clients, whether that be getting involved in HIV research to find life-sustaining treatment, providing assistance for returning citizens or helping people with job training, Goldfein said. 

The work of the Wistar Institute, and thus part of the work of FIGHT, would not be as robust without the generous support of people like Ken Nimblett and the Miller family. Martha Stengel Miller, the mother of Nimblett’s late partner, Rusty Miller, began providing monetary support for Wistar’s HIV research on the heels of her son’s involvement in AIDS service work in Boston. After both Rusty and his mother passed, Nimblett continued to support the Jonathan Lax Memorial Lecture that Fauci will be delivering at the awards event. Members of The Wistar Institute and Philadelphia FIGHT created the lecture following Lax’s death, to celebrate his legacy as an entrepreneur and HIV/LGBTQ activist. 

“This lecture has really had the benefit of bringing all of the most highly distinguished people in the field to talk in the Philadelphia community, including the first director of the Office of AIDS Research as the opening lecturer, to the Nobel Laureate who discovered HIV,” Montaner said. 

Nimblett expressed the fact that he is extremely honored to be recognized by the Wistar Institute. “I’m carrying on in [Rusty’s] and his mother’s footsteps to stay very plugged into this whole matter because we know how critically important HIV research is and what has to go on in terms of continuing to find a vaccine,” he said.  

Ultimately, advocates like Goldfein credit organizations like Philadelphia FIGHT and The Wistar Institute for their service in support of people living with HIV.

“I think that Philadelphia has a strong community that enables us to provide great support for people living with HIV,” Goldfein said. “I think part of that, maybe it’s our Quaker background in Philadelphia, but I also think it’s because of organizations like Philadelphia FIGHT and Wistar that have made Philadelphia a much safer, healthier place for people living with HIV.”

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