On April 8, 1990, 18-year-old Ryan White dies of pneumonia, due to having contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. He had been given six months to live in December of 1984 but defied expectations and lived for five more years, during which time his story helped educate the public and dispel widespread misconceptions about HIV/AIDS.
White suffered from hemophilia and thus required weekly blood transfusions. On December 17, 1984, just after his 13th birthday, he was diagnosed with AIDS, which he had contracted from one such transfusion. It was later revealed that roughly 90 percent of American hemophiliacs who had received similar treatments between 1979 and 1984 suffered the same fate. White was given six months to live, but recovered from the illness that had brought his disease to light and eventually felt healthy enough to return to school.
Though the scientific community knew that AIDS could only be transmitted through bodily fluids, the community around White’s Russiaville, Indiana school was paranoid that he would contaminate his classmates. White was denied entry to his school, and when the Indiana Department of Education ruled that he must be admitted the local school board unanimously voted to appeal the decision. From August of 1985 until the following June, White’s family and their opponents—who at one point held a fundraiser in the school gymnasium to support the cause of keeping him out—fought a legal battle that garnered national headlines. A diverse array of public figures appeared with White and spoke on his behalf, including Elton John, Michael Jackson, Alyssa Milano, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former President Ronald Reagan.
White was eventually allowed to return to school and spent his remaining years living a relatively normal life, although he made regular media appearances in an effort to educate the public about his illness. By the time of his death, just months before he was to graduate high school, White had become one of the leading figures in the movement to destigmatize HIV/AIDS. Several months later, the Ryan White CARE Act became federal law, providing a dramatic boost in funding for the treatment of low-income and un-insured people with HIV/AIDS.
READ MORE: The History of AIDS