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Elizabeth Taylor testifies before a U.S. Senate committee in 1986, after the death of close friend Rock Hudson in 1985. (Getty Images)

Elizabeth Taylor: An AIDS Activist To Remember

by Scott Hensley
Mar 23, 2011

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Elizabeth Taylor may be gone but her legacy as an early and committed supporter of research on HIV/AIDS and respect for those sickened by the virus will live on.

In one of her last interviews, she revealed to Us magazine 25 things that people didn't know about her. The last item on her list:

My family and people with HIV/AIDS are my life.

But she underestimated how unforgettable she was as an impassioned public health advocate. From almost the dawn of the epidemic in the U.S., she was an important figure in raising money to fight the disease, as well as a fighter for the acceptance of AIDS patients in society.

Back in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was mysterious and frightening to many people, she spoke out forcefully and often. The death of her friend and co-star Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985 helped steel her resolve.

That year she helped found amFAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, which has plowed nearly $325 million into AIDS programs and made research grants to more than 2,000 researchers around the world.

What led her to get involved? "I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything," she said, according to AmFAR. "And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."

But that didn't last long. Taylor "played a very important role at a very important time," Dr. Mervyn Silverman, a former president of amFAR, tells Melissa Block, host of NPR's All Things Considered. "She stood out as almost as the lone star, if you will, when most people were running in the opposite direction," he says. Listen to the conversation here.

Among other things, she publicly slammed visa restrictions, imposed by the U.S. government in 1987, on people infected with HIV. Only last year was the policy scrapped.

Another part of her legacy is the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which she founded in 1991, to focus on care and education about AIDS prevention.

Her bold stand on AIDS came when many people, including the political establishment, were intent on looking the other way. And it came at "a personal risk," amFAR noted. "She didn't do it to improve her career," Silverman says.

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