Local AIDS Activist Donates Papers to Emory’s MARBL

The University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Library (MARBL) is now home to the collections of retired psychiatrist and longtime Atlanta Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) activist, Jesse Peel.

The collection Peel donated to the University consists of materials such as journals, photographs, correspondence and audiotapes he and his mother sent back and forth during his navy service while he was stationed in Vietnam.

Peel originally grew up in a small town in North Carolina and attended medical school at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill. He completed his residency in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and spent two years in the navy. After living in San Francisco and Nashville, he moved to Atlanta in 1976, just before the AIDS epidemic broke out.

“Many students today don’t know the story of how AIDS came out of nowhere and started affecting people,” explained Randy Gue, curator of MARBL’s Modern Political and Historical Collection. “Atlanta had a unique response to the AIDS crisis. Unlike larger cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta was small enough that a bunch of people got together and said ‘We need to do something.’”

In Atlanta, Peel ran a psychiatry practice serving gay men. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, he began noticing that many of his gay friends in their early 20s and 30s were dying unexpectedly early, from what would later be identified as AIDS. Peel decided to do something to help his friends. He began hosting fundraisers for AIDS and even founded several activist groups, such as AID Atlanta and Positive Impact, a mental health program for people with HIV as well as their friends, family and caregivers.

According to Gue, Peel’s records provide an important backstory to Atlanta’s AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Peel kept journals of his encounters with the disease and kept appointment books containing names of his friends and clients who had died of AIDS. Gue said that this information could provide insight into Atlanta’s contemporary history, especially the history of the city’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. Peel’s records will contribute to MARBL’s expanding collection of LGBT materials, Gue said.

Gue cited Emory as a hotspot for AIDS research, because of the Centers for Disease Control, the Emory School of Medicine and the Rollins School of Public Health. Gue said that Peel’s records are a valuable addition to the university.

“This is a really important history about Atlanta and its past. Peel’s collection connects Emory’s campus with parts of Atlanta’s history,” said Gue.

By Harmeet Kaur