Solved: The 40-year mystery of the first man to die of AIDS in Britain

ITV spent three months tracing the life and death of John Eaddie, Paul Brand reports

He has remained a medical mystery since the day he died. ​He was never publicly named, and neither was the disease he died of.

But 40 years on, ITV can finally pay tribute to the first recorded AIDS victim to die in Britain. His name was John Eaddie. We've discovered that John died on October 29th 1981 at the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea. His cause of death was recorded as pneumocystis pneumonia.

That rare form of pneumonia would later be recognised as a deadly sign of HIV/AIDS, but at the time of John's death doctors didn't even know the underlying cause was a virus. We've spent the past three months finally piecing together John's life for a special Tonight programme marking four decades of the AIDS epidemic in Britain, in which the disease has cost 15,000 lives here. Until now, the only trace of John's death was a brief entry in the Lancet medical journal in December 1981, referring to a "known homosexual" who had travelled to Miami and was suspected to have died of the same mystery illness that was sweeping much of much of the gay community in America.

Until now, the cause of John's death has largely been a mystery to his loved ones. Credit: ITV Tonight

By tracing all the patients who died with pneumocystis pneumonia that year, we were able to find John's death certificate and find the friends that nursed him in his final days, who have waited 40 years to ​confirm the mystery of his death. With their support, we were able to finally tell his story. Tony Pinnegar remembers John as a charming man who ran a guesthouse in Bournemouth that was a safe-haven for gay men to meet and drink in the late '70s and early '80s. He and other friends visited John as he laid dying in bed, surrounded by doctors who were baffled by his illness. Tony told us: "John very quickly deteriorated and ended up in hospital in London. I remember going to see him. We thought he was going to recover, but I remember the doctor saying, 'He's not going to survive'. He was just lying there unconscious, strapped up to machines. And that was it, we never spoke to him again."

Another friend, Paul Wills, told us that in later years he had suspected that John must have died of AIDS, given his symptoms. "I think it's nice that we now know", he told us. "I think it's quite fitting that John can be remembered, because there was such a stigma." That stigma led to many gay men being victimised in the early '80s, as AIDS began devastating their community. At first, the disease was referred to as "gay cancer" or "the gay plague", with many patients blamed for having contracted HIV.

Ken Dee, who also knew John Eaddie from his guesthouse, told us, "There were lots of things I think we were quite glad to cut out.

"We went through such a terrible time in our lives. But what John did was set up some place that was really safe. And that's something we will always remember." Like most AIDS patients in the '80s, by the time John was diagnosed his life expectancy would have been just months or even weeks. Shortly after his death, Professor Jonathan Weber began a study of 400 gay men in London exhibiting early symptoms of AIDS. 399 subsequently died. He told us: "We had nothing for the underlying disease. And indeed we still didn’t know what the disease was.

"We had no idea what it was until 1984. The power of this virus to kill people without intervention is quite extraordinary." Until now, the first AIDS patient to be publicly identified in Britain was Terrence Higgins, who died in 1982, leading his friends to set up a charity in his name. One of the co-founders of the Terrence Higgins Trust, Martyn Butler, was at Heaven nightclub in London the night Terry collapsed.

Martyn Butler describes the pain of losing numerous friends during the UK's HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In a rare interview, he told us of the extraordinary speed at which the virus spread among the community.

"I started to write down guys names in the front of my bible because I was terrified I was going to forget their names", he said.

"And I remember getting to 50 and I had to stop because it was like collecting phone numbers. They were all so young. Just young boys."

Four decades on from John Eaddie's death, extraordinary advances in drugs have dramatically reduced deaths - today there is no reason why anyone with HIV should not live a full life. The UK's goal is to cut new infections to zero by 2030. The actor Nathaniel J Hall, who appeared in the Channel 4 AIDS epidemic drama It's a Sin, is one of 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV.

Nathaniel J Hall starred in Channel 4's It's a Sin.

"I take one tablet a day. It's got three different medications in it that suppress the virus. This is the thing keeping me alive and that’s incredible – what an amazing thing that this little tablet will keep me alive," he told us.

But across the world AIDS is still killing 600,000 people a year - mostly in Africa, where access to drugs is far more limited.

In Britain, what medicine hasn't cured is the stigma that still surrounds HIV and AIDS 40 years after the first death here. So many of the early patients were very deliberately forgotten. But John Eaddie will be remembered.

Searching for Patient Zero: Britain's AIDS Tragedy is on ITV at 7:30pm on Thursday 11 November. It will be available to watch after broadcast on the ITV Hub.

Charities offering support to those with HIV and AIDS