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Tales of VUMC Past

The Vanderbilt doctor who told his story of battling AIDS on “60 Minutes”

He wrote a bestseller, was interviewed on "60 Minutes," and his story showed a more hopeful future for people infected with HIV

by August 25, 2020

On the night of Jan. 12, 1997, viewers of the flagship CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” saw a segment about a VUMC physician who had just written a book titled “Working on a Miracle.”

The doctor was Mahlon Johnson, MD, PhD, a VUMC pathologist.

The “miracle” of the title was that Johnson, despite being HIV-positive, was not dying of AIDS.

“Working on a Miracle” became a best-seller, was published not only in the U.S. but by 14 foreign publishers, and millions of viewers of “60 Minutes” heard Johnson’s story.

As Johnson detailed the story in his book and in his interview with reporter Ed Bradley, he was performing a routine autopsy on a patient who had died of AIDS, the disease caused by HIV, on Sept. 14, 1992, and his scalpel slipped. Johnson cut himself even through the rubber protective gloves he wore.

Despite immediately disinfecting the wound, Johnson tested positive for HIV. This was in an era when AIDS was still incurable and almost always fatal.

Johnson’s book chronicles his search for a cure, trying out new combinations of antiviral drugs on himself, and how he was a pioneer in the use of a drug cocktail early in the disease process that eventually became the standard of treatment for people with HIV infection. It was the use of such drug combinations that changed HIV infection from a death sentence to a chronic illness.

“From my view, it was much better to die fighting than to start fighting when you are dying,” he said at the time.

“Working on a Miracle” became a best-seller, was published not only in the U.S. but by 14 foreign publishers, and millions of viewers of “60 Minutes” heard Johnson’s story.

Today, Johnson remains active in academic medicine as professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Director of Neuropathology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York.

"60 Minutes", Mahlon Johnson, television, infectious disease, HIV-AIDS, Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, Pathology