Episode 4: 99 Percent Certainty
What really happened to Gary Davis and his serum? Grant starts reaching out to the doctor’s family members. They are eager to tell their stories – but all have different perspectives. The daughter who spent much of her childhood in Davis’ lab, the son who was skeptical at first but then came around, the niece who tried to help Davis bring the serum to fruition in the shadow of historic racial violence. A road trip to Tulsa brings a deeper understanding of Gary Davis — and an anonymous tip leads to new insights: After the FDA shut down a clinical trial for Davis’ serum, at least one biopharmaceutical company created its own. Its trials? Approved, funded by the NIH.
Serum is a limited run podcast production of WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media.
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SERUM Ep. 4: 99 Percent Certainty
Grant Hill: Glashay Davis’ dad had always been a bit eccentric – and then he had a dream about curing Aids.
Glashay Davis: He woke us up and was like listen. Ya’ll need to listen to this. And he’s like, telling us like his dream….//
GH: Glashay says he was determined to make his vision a reality – any way possible…
GD: Late nights, weekends, holidays. Once he had that, that was his passion.
GH: Developing this cure became his mission – his obsession – sending him all over the globe, forging alliances with ardent supporters and very questionable characters. So when one morning, just weeks before his 56th birthday, Glashay’s dad didn’t wake up, she was suspicious…
GD: I don’t know how it was like how he passed. I don’t believe it was from a heart attack. No, I don’t. No.
GH: From WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media, this is SERUM. I’m Grant Hill.
GH: Learning about Gary Davis’ work in Africa – the human trials, the moments of hope and promise that were followed by fear – paranoia – and some kind of mental breakdown – my list of questions about the doctor and his serum kept getting longer and longer, like a line of dominoes waiting to fall.
Photographer Doug Henderson didn’t know exactly what brought Gary Davis to Africa after the serum seemed to make some headway in the US. And he didn’t know what – or who – convinced the doctor to flee Ghana in 2005.
DH: I can only tell you what this what I witnessed.
There were still so many gaps in my knowledge of who Davis was, what really happened to his serum in the US, who was treated with it and if it’s really still out there. I felt like I needed to get closer to the doctor – through the people who knew him best. His friends, his family – especially his kids.
If anyone could fill these gaps, point me in the right direction toward someone who had actually been treated with the serum – it would be them.
But I had been really nervous about reaching out. I had no idea how his kids would react to my interest in their dad’s work – especially right in the middle of a pandemic, with its own canon of conspiracy theories and alternative treatments…
GH: Hey is this Shay?
GD: Yes, this is Shay.
GH: The first person I got in touch with was Gary Davis’ daughter, Glashay.
GH: Uh, I know it’s kind of weird just me contacting you out of nowhere, but um, I really appreciate you taking the time…fades out
GH: I awkwardly explained exactly how I became so obsessed with her dad and told her about my Lyft driver, Clyde Ashley Sherman.
GD: Oh my gosh. Yeah. So yeah, I know. Clyde. Yeah, he was real close with my dad. Like, yeah, they travel together and yeah, he was cool.
GH: I made this first call to Glashay in 2020 – just as the first wave of Covid-19 cases crested in Oklahoma.
GD: Here, no one’s taking it seriously…Like Walmart on the outside their door, you know, they say you have to have mask to come in. And most like I would say, 80%…fades out
GH: Glashay works in behavioral health. And saw firsthand how the pandemic response – and misinformation – was affecting Tulsa’s most vulnerable residents.
GD: and they will argue with the Walmart staff, it’s my right not to wear a mask…
I wanted to know whether she and her family really thought her dad was onto something with his Aids treatment, or if some overeager patients or investors, or the doctor himself, had jumped the gun – made promises the serum couldn’t back up.
GD: our dad worked really hard…
GH: Glashay and I spoke at length – and to my surprise, she wasn’t weirded out at all. In fact, she had started to become more curious about her dad, too. About what exactly happened to the serum – and, to him.
She put me in touch with Shawn, her half-brother, her dad’s younger son from a previous marriage…she thought he might have a few things to say…and, he DID.
SD: When it came to like teaching me a lesson about life or quitting, he tested me constantly. I remember he had me walking around the coffee table in my living room, that was in PRESCHOOL, reciting my multiplication table…fades out
GH: I also asked Glashay if she could also get me in touch with Shawn’s brother…the doctor’s oldest son, Gary Jr. also a Dartmouth grad like their dad, also a doctor.
GD: There’s been a lot of falling outs over the years between my brothers amongst each other. And our dads have always been the center of the argument..
GH: She doubted Gary Jr. wanted to talk.
GD: My brother like, I guess he like really blamed my dad. Like, you know, I just wish you’d be normal, be a normal doctor and not do all this and just give this up. I don’t know why you just want to keep chasing this thing. You know, so him and my dad… Junior and my dad got into it. Like really bad.
GH: But – she said I should definitely come to Tulsa. Get a sense of the city that formed Gary Davis. Meet the rest of the family – and especially her cousin Sharonda who’s a bit older than Glashay, and had worked closely with the doctor.
Plus, I knew there was a chance if someone really gave Rocky Thomas more serum after her daughter Precious got sick…they might just be in Oklahoma. I also knew there was a chance I might meet a patient who had been treated with the serum there…
SD: I talk to some of them patients to this day…I have them on Facebook. They still my friends.
Shawn said he’d reach out to at least one person on my behalf…but he couldn’t make any promises.
SD: He’s in Oklahoma. He’s not taken regular meds for years and he’s fine. He’s still kicking. He’s a cowboy.
I definitely wanted to meet this cowboy, whoever he was – and the doctor’s family. But with the pandemic raging, it took a long while to arrange this trip.
Car Clip Mary
MP: I’m gonna throw up if we don’t eat soon…but there’s nowhere in sight…FADE OUT
Finally, in the summer of 2021, I took a chance and drove to Tulsa.
MP: So we’re gonna..
GH: We’re gonna have a dramatic reading by Mary Purcell.
MP: A dramatic reading. The Alfalfa county communication logs…oh god this is a lot of pressure.
GH: That’s Mary, my girlfriend, she went along with me. Helped keep things light…keep my mind off my conversations with Doug Henderson and Bishop Carlton Pearson…all the unknowns we could be driving right into…
MP: I’m pretty sure we just go down this road and then it’s on our left…
GH: Yea for some reason this isn’t working…
After days on the road, our first stop was to meet Glashay’s cousin, Sharonda Dennard, at an Applebees in Tulsa…
MUSIC to transition // sound arriving
Sharonda pulls up in a compact convertible with a license plate that says FANCI…
GH: Hi Sharonda!
SD: Hi Grant!
GH: It’s so great to finally meet you….fades out
GH: Sharonda is in her 50s now. Her mother died when she was just a girl, so her uncle, Gary Davis, took her in – and gave her a job, too – in his small family practice in Tulsa.
Sharonda has made arrangements for me to meet her uncle’s best friend, too…Curtis West…but everyone here just calls him Baby.
SD: Curtis, where are you? Where are you, Baby?
CW: [over the phone] I’m really close, I’m here.
SD: Hey Baby, how you doing? Good to see you….
GH: We grab a table. Sharonda’s a regular, she gets the staff to mute the music near us so it won’t be too loud. And they’re all eager to talk about the doctor. Curtis has brought a manila folder stuffed with photos…
CW: This is my cousin Dr. Davis, this is my personal autographed picture of him…
GH: He calls Gary Davis his cousin, even though they were not actually related. He has also brought a bunch of papers from back when he was helping Davis try to get his serum off the ground. Curtis had no medical experience, he was a gym teacher who wanted to help his best friend make his dream come to life.
CW: And then later on we had a patient named Bob Cowan…
GH: Sharonda sits next to Curtis, nodding along, chiming in to give more detail…
SD: Once, they’d been tested…they’d come in with their lab work.
SD: They’d been tested at hospitals or whatever…
GH: Two hours pass and we’re still talking – well mostly Curtis is, about how great his friend was. How federal health officials never gave him a fair shot – and how he misses him.
K: Not to cut you off but just hearing yall talk about everything…
That’s Karen, Curtis’ wife…she met Curtis after Gary Davis died. But she’s heard all of this before.
K: …What it sounded like to me is that.. they looked at him as a man of color and him been a threat because of his knowledge. And that’s what it all really kind of like boiled down to because if it had been anyone else they would have listened but they didn’t want to listen because of who he was…fades out
GH: We wrap up and head back out to the hot, windy parking lot – our conversation was fascinating, heartfelt, but I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything brand-new. No revelations. To be honest, though – I’m not sure what exactly I expected to learn…
CW: But everything that we did, in honor of God, it worked.
GH: Did you ever doubt it yourself? Like was there a moment…
CW: Never. Never. Never. Not one time…fades out
GH: To Curtis, the serum was divinely inspired. Part of God’s plan – basically fate. And me getting in that cab in Philly? Meeting Sherman? Discovering the doctor’s story? Coming to Tulsa? Curtis thinks all that is fate too.
Curtis is still speaking but my mind is wandering. What if he’s right? Is this fate? Maybe I will find something here that helps me make sense of it all?
CW: We have a nephew who’s got full-blown AIDS right now. But he’s still around. He struggles sometimes, but if we had some more medicine…Cause I thought about Precious too, cause we often wonder how is she doing…
SD: She good.
CW: Then we heard she graduated…
GH: Then, Sharonda offers to take Mary and me on a Gary Davis-inspired tour of Tulsa. To show us where the doctor lived, where he worked, where he died.
GH: All right, we’ll follow you then.
GH: We say our goodbyes to Curtis and get into the car to follow Sharonda.
GH: All right, we’ll follow you then.
CAR DOOR OPENS AND SHUTS
GH: Yea, now that’s the part that – okay we have to pay attention I’m losing Sharonda now.
MP: Yea, I got her…we’re on like a high-speed chase…FADE DOWN
GH: Soon, Sharonda hops in our car – the only way I could keep up with her. And eventually, we approach a very important stop on Sharonda’s tour: the site of the family’s old house on East Mohawk Boulevard….
SD: So all of this…this is where our house was…
GH: I was excited to maybe go in the house. Look around. Check for clues about the serum that Gary Davis may have left behind. But as we approach, Sharonda’s shoulders sink and she points to a mound of dry dirt surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
The old house is gone – torn down. Something she discovered just a couple weeks ago..
SD: I said what the hell…what happened??
GH: My shoulders sink, too. This didn’t feel like fate. But I try to imagine how it all looked back when it did.
SD: We were at home at 1715 East Mohawk Boulevard, Tulsa, Oklahoma in a blue house.
That night in December 1992 when everything changed forever.
SD: It was like maybe three or four o’clock in the morning on a regular random day.
The night Gary Davis woke everybody up with big – strange news.
SD: His master bedroom was adjacent for me and my brother’s. And we both got woke up in the middle of the night with him talking about this dream.
GH: This is Shawn Davisn again – the younger of two sons from the doctor’s first marriage.
SD: He said let me go talk to ya’ll in the study, let’s go to study right now. We’re like, what’s going on?
GH: Glashay was there, too.
GD: He woke us up and was like listen. Ya’ll need to listen to this. And he’s like, telling us like his dream of like him injecting the antibodies, you know, into the goat. The goat makes antibodies for, you know, HIV and AIDS.
SD: It was almost like it was Christmas. But it was no Santa Claus. It was this serum. That’s how it was. He woke everybody up like he was in It’s a Wonderful Life. Talking about he thought he thought he solved a problem to cure HIV. We were all like, What are you talking about? And he was like I think this goat might actually have something in it that can help fight this virus. And we were like why are you saying this now? And he was like I had this dream.
GD: Then like the whole night he didn’t sleep. He was like, up just constantly like writing all this stuff down. And then the next day, you know, he’s telling us like, I got to get this in motion. Like, I got to do this. Like, I know that this is something that I have to do. And like AIDS and HIV was like a passion of his because he signed a lot of death certificates of his patients that died from it. And unfortunately, a lot of them were in the black community here in North Tulsa.
And so it lit a fire in him. He wasn’t the same after that.
GH: So this is what I’m thinking about all of this as I look at the mound of dirt that was the doctor’s house. My hopes of finding some sort of time capsule or clue left by the doctor – dashed.
SD: our house is gone…wow..
GH: Real answers to big questions are rarely found all at once or in one place – I was learning that the hard way. But according to Sharonda here, in the historically Black neighborhood of Greenwood in North Tulsa – I was much closer to finding the truth…and really understanding her uncle.
SD: Yea, they’re doing an article on my uncle Dr. Gary Davis.
Man: Oh, Gary Davis was a classmate of mine at Booker T.
SD: Yea, that’s my uncle, so they’re in town from Philly….
GH: Here, people think of Gary Davis as a hero.
MAN: Yea his office was right there, yea…I’m so glad we were just talking about Dr. Davis cause somebody took some pictures from down here…
GH: We walk up to the hospital where he worked early on in his career – delivering babies for impoverished at-risk mothers, taking the cases other doctors considered too risky.
SD: So his brick…they used to have a trash can up here…right here!
GH: Sharonda shows me the brick leading up to the entrance of the hospital engraved with the doctor’s name. Soon we arrive at the place where Gary Davis cemented his legacy: the old family practice. This is where Gary Davis saw his patients year after year – where his serum became the stuff of legend.
SD: At the top to the left was our office…that was our building.
GH: It’s a three-story building in the middle of a strip of storefronts on Greenwood Avenue, the heart of what was once known as Black Wall Street. Sharonda takes us to the back of the building, where a long hallway connects all of the stores on the block…
SD: Let’s see…let’s go back here. Let’s go back here since you guys are already here in town. Since you’re already here in town. I might as well show you. *door opens*
GH: What Sharonda wants to show us was basically a private museum – documenting what happened here, over a century ago, when a white mob destroyed this thriving Black community.. It’s a hidden memorial, not open to the public.
SD: So you’re talking about the 1921 race riots. So you’re talking about the 1921 race riots. And when they tore down Greenwood burned it down. Greenwood rebuilt and then Internal Revenue….fades down
GH: Homemade posters, timelines, maps, and laminated photos of local and national Black heroes covered the walls. Colorful dresses and hats displayed on mannequins, next to a metal sign that used to hang over segregated water fountains. The lettering had just begun to fade.
SD: And so this is just a lot of collectible history that people have had stored in their homes. that maybe their ancestors left to them, or, you know, are their mom or whatever, you know, left to them. So they all brought it. It dates from way, way, way back when you a we also have a Culture Center and our families in there because their family home got burned up in the race riots.
GH: The mob decimated whole city blocks, looted businesses, and left 10,000 people homeless. The place where we are standing now – it had all been reduced to rubble.
It was the largest race riot in American history… something officials tried to hide.
Initially, the state claimed only 36 people had died during the riots, including 12 white people. Historians now say the real number of Black Tulsans murdered over those two days could be over 300.
In 2018, the city had committed to re-investigating the riots. As Sharonda shows us around, researchers were still lifting remains from unmarked graves, where it was long rumored victims of the killings were buried.
SD: One guy told them where the bodies were buried because his dad told him when he was a little boy.
GH: And that’s how they know?
ShD: That’s how we know…isn’t that crazy?
GH: Those two dark days of violence in Tulsa in 1921 destroyed more than just lives, families, and property. It destroyed everything Black Wall Street symbolized, the bright promise that peace and prosperity were possible for all Americans. That things were changing.
But the violence eclipsed that promise. Among the many repercussions of the massacre was the significant enduring decline in the number of patents filed by Black inventors throughout the entire country. Sharonda wants me to see this – to understand this history – because it shaped Gary Davis in so many ways. He was born just 30 years after this massacre – and his early life in North Tulsa wasn’t easy.
The doctor’s father was a day laborer who loved math. He went to vocational school, but jobs were scarce for Black men then. He died young. The doctor often described his mom as a hustler. Someone who turned things over, bought and sold bric-a-brac, at one point weed, to fill the gaps, put food on the table.
Life was unstable for Gary Davis growing up. After his dad died, her mother had different boyfriends – men with tempers. Glashay has heard stories of her dad getting out of school, his brother waiting for him outside with two familiar words: Mama moved. This happened multiple times, Glashay said, sometimes due to money problems, sometimes racial tensions.
But Davis persevered. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. Then double majored in Chemistry and Mathematics at Northeastern State University. He landed an internship at Dow Chemical, where a mentor suggested he apply to Dartmouth Medical School. So he did – and he got in.
Still, that long shadow of racism followed. His daughter Glashay told me about an example, something that happened in med school…
GD: Even when he was at Dartmouth, he told me that sometimes people would tell him that, hey, there’s an issue in the bathroom and you need to go handle that…And he’s like, what? I’m a student. And they’re like oh you’re a student here? And he’s yea like I’m not a janitor – what are you talking about? // I’m not a janitor. // He said he felt really out of place when he pulled up and there’s kids driving Bentleys and Mercedes and really nice cars, and he’s like, I had a baby, a wife, and another baby on the way. And a car that you had to add water to to get from point A to point B.
But, no matter where he traveled, no matter how he got there, Gary Davis always found a way back to Point A. Back to Tulsa.
His resume says that after finishing medical school in 1977, Davis became a Field Medical Services Officer in the US Marine Corp in North Carolina, did his Residency at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Maryland. After that…he was a Senior Medical Officer at the Naval Nuclear Weapons Station in Goose Creek, South Carolina. His service kept him on the east coast until the mid-80s, when he eventually returned to Greenwood. To be a physician there. To serve his community.
And now, Sharonda wants to show me the place where he did just that.
SD: So they’re doing a story on Dr. Davis.
Woman: Oh great!
SD: But I was trying to get them upstairs. I want to show them where are office was.
Woman: Wow. I don’t have the all purpose key…FADE OUT
GH: The first floor of the building is a barbershop – the old office is on the second and third floor. Sharonda walks in, a woman on a mission…Sharonda hops on the phone to find a key. We settle into the welcome air-conditioned cool of the barbershop, and the buzzing of razors…Customers start asking us questions. I’m holding a giant microphone…
SD: Alright, how are you?
MAN: Your uncle had a dentist office here in Greenwood.
ShD: Dr. Davis
MAN: Dr. Davis? That’s the… he was the local medical doctor? Oh, I heard I heard about him. He had a cure for AIDS?
SD: Yeah, so they are Yeah, yeah, so they’re in town and they are doing doing his story….
GH: I’m eager to get upstairs – closer yet to the place where Gary Davis had done so much work on the serum. The place where Rocky told me she had gotten the vials to treat Precious. And honestly, I hadn’t completely given up on finding that secret time capsule full of answers…something to tell me if this serum actually worked…
MUSIC / barber shop sound fades out
SD: I didn’t believe it at first myself. I’m not going to lie. I was a skeptic like anybody else. Why you did it? How you did it? Why it worked for you? Why did nobody else how you come up with it?
GH: At first, the doctor’s younger son Shawn wasn’t buying it. He was already spending a good portion of his free time as a teenager working at his dad’s office.
SD: He made me work there! He said if if I’m gonna get money, I’m gonna earn it or you don’t give me no allowance. So he had me filing test results and patients’ charts. When I when I was probably like in eighth grade.
GH: Whatever his dad’s dream was all about – Shawn wanted no part of it.
SD: I was a skeptic like everybody else. Even though he’s my dad. I was a skeptic. I was like bullshit, dad. Come on now. You can do some shit that Fauci couldn’t do? FDA couldn’t do it. NIH couldn’t do CDC…you did it? I was like bullshit.
GH: Other people around Gary Davis felt more inspired – neighbors, other doctors, lawyers, friends – they wanted to help… People like Davis’ best friend Curtis “Baby” West…
CW: I’m saying to you, Grant, we diligently worked on that project.
GH: He told me that in the early days, he managed the doctor’s correspondence with the FDA alongside a local judge. They formed a committee.
CW: And with these, guys being legal people, they made sure, before we sent out. We proofread it over and over to make sure it was precise.
GH: Another supporter and volunteer, Kenneth Bolton heard about the serum from his brother-in-law, a doctor in Tulsa – a friend of Davis. Ken had connections in Washington and he wanted to help on the political side of things.
KB: My objective was to let him do the science, and I would try to do a business – cuz that’s what I do…
GH: Ken leveraged his knowledge and network from his decades working at federal agencies to lobby for the serum.
KB: There was so much action during those days about trying to promote it…
GH: Ken told me Davis was a polymath – skilled at almost everything he tried – excluding business stuff. The doctor was creative – and had little patience for bureaucracy.
KB: He was a thinker.
GH: Ken said Davis was a founding member of the Gap Band, a famous R&B group from Tulsa whose early hits were partially written by Davis, according to Ken.
GAP BAND SONG Shake plays…
KB: He was like how you’d expect a scientist to be…to have a curious mind.
GH: In the beginning, it was people like Kenneth and Curtis, friends and family who were excited about the cause and devoted to Davis, who the doctor leaned on most as he got into the regulatory process with the serum. They weren’t exactly experts in drug development – but Davis trusted them – and that was worth a lot. Eventually, they raised funds for a modest lab in Poteau, Oklahoma – a small town two-and-a-half hours away from Tulsa.
GD: Well, in his lab, he was physically making the medicine so, you know, we had, he had a few barnyard goats.
GH: The doctor’s daughter Glashay was still a child then – and almost every weekend, Glashay and her dad made that long drive to Poteau. Almost every weekend, Glashay watched her dad work.
GD: He had two patients that had AIDS… HIV. They said, Yes, I consent for you to give me you know, I’ll give you my blood to be able to inject that into the goat and this and that. So my dad would take the blood from them, injected into the goat, and then the goat made antibodies within a day.
GH: Her dad drew blood from the goat – watching it fight off the virus. Produce antibodies.
GD: After a certain period of time, like the goats antibody, completely eradicated the AIDS virus where you couldn’t even find it anymore. So at its peak, that’s the part that he would take and turn it into a serum. And that’s the serum that everybody that he did clinical trials on in Africa and stuff like that. That’s the stuff that does its job.
GH: It was fascinating to witness…up to a point. It’s hard enough to get a kid to go to piano lessons, let alone sit still in a lab all day.
GD: Man, like, we’re going down to a lab in the middle of nowhere, like doing this on the weekend, you know, when I’m like, I want to be with my friends a little bit. And my dad was like no you got to go with me like where else you gonna go like, no, you go with me and that’s just the way it is. So I started to try to find things that I really liked about going. So then I looked forward to it and started to figure out things that I really liked and realized it was. It was a cool moment, like, not very many people got to do that.
GH: Of the many things Glashay said her father had taught her during their time together, one of the most important was chemistry. She said that was her dad’s true passion – fostered during his time at Dow Chemical. It was this foundation that fueled the science behind Davis’ serum. She said for her dad, this was all about a scientific quest to help people – not about making money…
GD: That never came in his mind, his thought process. You know, because people would say, you know, you can make a lot of money from this. And my dad was like, that’s not even in my thought process. I want to do this, even if it’s free, even if I could help somebody, you know, to save somebody’s life. Like that’s what I want.
GH: Glashay believed in her dad. She was by his side while he was refining the process…trying to get it right. And in time, her brother Shawn started to come around, too.
SD: I said bullshit for about two, three years. I don’t believe it. Then I saw the results from Dr. Jolly with the in vitro stuff. And it said what it said, and I was like, okay, maybe, maybe.
Those results – the ones that persuaded Shawn that maybe his dad was on to something – they came from this woman.
GH: That’s Dr. Pauline Jolly, she’s an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
A year before Davis had his dream, Pauline started working with researchers at Tuskegee University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, studying how animal antibodies interact with HIV. And her team was particularly interested in goats.
PJ: We were thinking that maybe the goat would process the virus in a different way from human beings.
GH: And produce strong neutralizing antibodies against HIV.
PJ: And then that could be used in humans, either prophylactically or the results could lead to development of a HIV vaccine.
GH: After his dream, Davis immersed himself in HIV research – and through some connections, he eventually approached Pauline’s team for help in developing his serum…to collaborate. The hope was to get funding from the NIH. Pauline had worked on research with the agency before.
By the spring of 1995, with the help of the resources contributed by Tuskegee, Davis said he had created a serum from the blood of a goat that had been infected with HIV. After running through the process a few more times, he sent a batch of this serum to Pauline to be tested. By the summer, the results were in.
PJ: The results did look like the serum could hold the virus from infecting the cell.
GH: Pauline said that in a lab, the serum appeared to stop HIV from infecting a human cell. Back then, she also told the Washington Post that the serum could eliminate already infected cells, too. Still, these were just lab tests: human cells in test tubes and Petri dishes. Not real, live, complex human beings. It was a promising result, yes, but far off from a sure thing.
However, the results confirmed Davis’ hypothesis that this could work. So, lab results in hand, Davis applied to conduct a phase one clinical trial with the FDA for his serum in February 1997.
By then, the HIV-related mortality rate in the US had just begun to decline thanks to the rollout of new experimental antiretroviral drugs. But it wasn’t nearly quick enough.
The goal for Davis’ first trial was pretty basic: prove to the government that the product was safe for human use – monitor side effects and adverse reactions. Only then can you move on to phase 2 and 3 trials, to show your product really benefits patients – improves their condition.
All pharmaceutical companies have to do this – submit an Investigational New Drug application that lays out how their phase one trial with a new product will work. Once received, the FDA has 30 days to say wait, hold up, pause…we got more questions for you before you go through with this and put patient lives on the line. That’s called being put on clinical hold. It’s very common.
And that’s what happened to Davis on April 9, 1997 – his application was put on clinical hold. Glashay told me she was there that day…
GD: It was about an hour before he was fixing to start. A man came in and in a suit and two, I mean, they to me, they look like Secret Service type guys, they came in behind him. And they said, this is not a go you know, unplug, disconnect. This is not, we’re not going to go forward with this. So my dad and him went into my dad’s office, they talk and then when he left, we were all like, my dad and his staff are all just like standing there, like, what happened. And so I go into his office and he’s crying. And we’re like, you know what’s wrong? He said that they’re not gonna let me do this. Like, I know, this is not supposed to do and they will let me do this.
GH: For what it’s worth, Davis told the Washington Post that he got the news about the clinical hold by phone the day before the trial was supposed to begin, not through a personal visit. But others I interviewed also told me stories about in-person visits from the FDA at Davis’ office, visits that were not always pleasant.
Still – The doctor was sure about his serum and he was passionate about helping people who didn’t have access to the newest approved treatments. So he started making noise about Pauline Jolly’s lab results – stirring up a bit of a publicity campaign for the serum with the help of his patient Bobby Cowan…
ANCHOR…And according to Dr. Davis you have a potential cure for AIDS…
Gary Davis: This is no different than you taking venom from a snake, injecting it into a horse, the horse makes antibodies FADE OUT
GH: Ken Bolton, who was helping Davis at the time, told me that at first, federal health officials, experts in HIV had been into the idea behind the goat serum. Ken was able to use his political connections to get Davis an audience in Washington.
KB: By that time we had gone to NIH, and we were good friends with Dr. Fauci. And that Fauci thought it was worth spending some time. And we wanted NIH to be a partner with this in developing it. And they generally agreed with that.
GH: But Davis’ best friend Curtis West, and plenty others, told me for whatever reason that goodwill between Dr. Davis, Dr. Fauci, and the NIH didn’t last long.
CW: When I see Dr. Fauci, man, I have really…it’s hard for me…
GH: In the press, Anthony Fauci the whole idea behind the serum was bunk.
AF: Not only is there not any basis for it to work, but there’s evidence to the contrary that it won’t work because this type of approach has been tried before and in an even more sophisticated way.
ANCHOR: So you’re saying that medical science has looked at this, the people on the cutting edge of AIDS research right now basically look at this and say been there done that? It doesn’t work?
AF: That’s correct.
GH: But even this didn’t stop Davis. He dug his heels in.
ANCHOR: A lot of people are gonna say hey, how can all these bright scientists in Washington DC and around the world that have been working on this problem, how could they overlook something that seems so simple?
GD: They didn’t ask me.
GH: The doctor was cocky – and determined….maybe even reckless. He didn’t wait for permission. He began quietly treating people with his unapproved serum in Tulsa.
And this is when his son Shawn the skeptic..
SD: This is test tube. Maybe it don’t work in a person, it just works in a laboratory in a test tube.
GH: Became a believer.
SD: My proof was Precious.
GH: What changed his mind was Precious Thomas.
My proof was Precious. And I saw this little girl sick. An I saw this little girl for four years because she was in DC when I was in DC. When I went to Howard she was living there with Rocky. I saw this little girl play. I saw this little girl sick. I saw her blood work. That girl’s viral load went to zero. Her cd4 count went to normal. And she has kids now that aren’t HIV positive. So how’d that happen? And she didn’t take the protocol from Fauci and NIH.
GH: Soon, the media got ahold of Precious’ story: how her adoptive mother Rocky eschewed the NIH’s protocol in favor of Dr. Davis’ serum. How the little girl’s viral count – monitored by the NIH – had dropped to undetectable. Soon politicians got involved, vowed to help in DC. Federal health officials promised to give the serum a second look.
But Glashay and Shawn said they were just that: promises. Despite Precious’s recovery, nothing ever came of the serum that purportedly saved her, for reasons unknown.
But Davis didn’t stop– his quest for the cure continued…Even after being put on clinical hold, he traveled to other countries, like Ivory Coast and Ghana to try to get the project going there. He went to so many different places, even his own family had trouble remembering where he was when. Still, that whole time, he didn’t give up on starting his clinical trial in the states.
PJ: Dr. Davis later went to NIH and NIH asked me to send them the results.
GH: Pauline Jolly sent her promising test results to the NIH upon Davis’ request. She still has all the paperwork from that time.
PJ: I have a memorandum…
GH: She rifled through it during our conversation.
PJ: They were saying that they were going to try to duplicate what we had done, in other words, infect goats with the virus. And then they had promised to carry out studies designed to look to characterize the serum.
GH: The NIH agreed to try to replicate their serum, run some tests, and see if it lived up to the hype. That was in 2004.
PJ: So I sent that to them, and I don’t know, you know, what became of that promise, you know, how far they got and whether they presented Dr. Davis with any results from what they promised to do.
GH: That was the last Pauline had heard about the status of the serum in the US. More promises. Pauline Jolly wasn’t sure why Gary Davis never secured clinical trials with the FDA for his serum. I told her about the speculation I had seen online and heard in interviews – that some, maybe even Davis himself, believed that Big Pharma didn’t want this treatment out there at the time. That there was too much money at stake with the antiretrovirals already in the pipeline.
PJ: No, I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that. No. You know, if you find out what actually happened after the NIH collected the sample and promised to do the testing for Dr. Davis that would maybe explain what’s happened at the NIH.
GH: I kept searching for answers, to find out what happened to the serum at NIH.
What made Anthony Fauci go from his passionate certainty that Gary Davis’s approach would not work in 1997…
AF: There is evidence to the contrary…
– to his response in that CSPAN clip from 2005…
AF: Although it is a reasonable idea…
GH: Where he called it a reasonable idea…
I was still being told Anthony Fauci was unavailable to answer my questions. And the doctor at NIH who oversaw Precious’ protocol declined to speak with me, too.
Then one day I got a message on Twitter from an account I didn’t recognize called M Enigma 69 – yea, I know.
“Hello, I noticed you performed a FOIA request for BB:7075 and Dr. Davis.” the user wrote. “I’m just curious…” then a phone number and a name…
Turns out, M Enigma 69 used to work for the doctor – and still keeps tabs on the serum. I told this person about my project – they were really concerned about privacy, and they didn’t want to be recorded for the podcast, but they pointed me in a direction.
See, this tipster believed a biopharmaceutical company may have piggybacked off Gary Davis’ research not – and this company did get support from federal health officials.
And wouldn’t you know it, M Engima 69 was onto something.
Coming up on SERUM:
I am quite open to pushing envelopes. I like out of box thinking…
When the name “Harvard” is attached to an idea – it seems to get more respect…
I mean, for their investors. It was: our drug is being tested at Harvard. And indeed it was.
GH: This is SERUM…I’m Grant Hill.
So I got this tip from a weirdly-named Twitter account…saying” hey, if you’re looking into Gary Davis…you should check out this clinical trial conducted by a biopharmaceutical company. They did some research that was very similar to Gary Davis’ work.”
And to my surprise, I found the trial, and the researcher who headed it.
BD: My name is uh Bruce Dezube. At the time of the trial, I was an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
GH: Four years after Dr. Davis was put on clinical hold, Bruce was starting a brand new phase one clinical trial in Boston, Massachusetts – just one of the hundreds he led as a researcher on experimental therapeutics for cancer and HIV there. It was a crisp September morning in 2001…
BD: I’ll never forget it, I was examining this patient. And so he was facing the TV. When I was examining him, and I was looking at his body, and he said, like, holy shit, I’ll never forget this. I said, like, what did I do? And he said, the plane flew into a tower. Did you see it?
GH: Then another hit.
BD: And the whole like unit came to a screeching halt every physician and every nurse, and everybody and HRG was not administered and got delayed…So that’s where I was when the towers came down. I was administering polyclonal goat antibody to HIV patients.
GH: Polyclonal goat antibodies…goat serum.
BD: I am quite open to pushing envelopes. I like out of the box thinking…
GH: By that time, Bruce had developed a bit of a reputation among medical researchers…a good one. He was the go-to guy for trialing unconventional ideas…unconventional treatments…he wasn’t afraid to fail or get laughed at…which he never was.
BD: And I had no trouble getting companies to come to me, and they wanted a Harvard signature. I mean, for their investors. It was: our drug is being tested at Harvard. And indeed it was.
GH: So when a company from New Zealand called Virionyx approached Bruce to write up an Investigational New Drug application for their new product, a serum made from the blood of a goat infected with HIV, he jumped at the chance.
BD: I basically wrote the trial for them, they’re a company without an MD, so I wrote the trial with a team, I had a team. And it was it was trial on a floor that was paid for by taxpayer dollar money.
GH: That’s right. By 2001, not only had FDA officials approved a phase 1 clinical trial for this company’s goat serum, but the NIH was helping fund it. I sent over some information about Gary Davis to Bruce before we spoke. He recognized the Washington Post article about him.
BD: Once I read it I said, oh I read this before…
GH: He remembered the article had also been sent to him by Virionyx.
GH: So you think that Virionyx did know about Gary Davis’ work?
BD: I would say with 99 percent certainty.
GH: Both Gary Davis and the founder of Virionyx filed patents trying to protect their serums. Gary Davis filed first. Bruce didn’t know exactly how similar the two serums were in composition – that would take lab tests to determine. .
GH: But the theory was basically the same?
BD: The theory was the same that you infect HIV into goats, and you develop a polyclonal response. And that you would do it but like, you know, how can I how can I compare it?
GH: Did the NIH or anybody from federal health agencies ever express any concern as to this scientific kind of merits of what you were doing? Did anybody say flat out to you there’s evidence to the contrary that this won’t work?
BD: No one had ever said that.
GH: So what happened in the trial?
BD: It went very smoothly. You can read the article…it went very smoothly in a handful of patients and lowered their HIV load. It, it worked.
GH: In 2003, the study was published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Overall, it was a success. Though Bruce cautioned that more testing was needed with dosing and various other factors to determine its true potential. This early trial by no means proved Virionyx’s serum was a cure, or that it would continue to work over time. But it was well-tolerated and effective for some. He compared it to another drug he worked on – and a comment he received from someone at the NIH. They put it like this…
BD: Dezube, at the end of the day, you hit a solid single. And I would say the goat serum for what it was being developed as a treatment for HIV. I hit a solid single.
GH:So what happened to Virionyx and its serum? We’ll get to that in a later episode.
But I asked Bruce, knowing what he knew about the serum…about the so-called “Goat Doctor” Was Davis a quack… a crank?
BD: Oh my god, for sure not.
GH: For sure not?
BD: Like for sure not. Yeah, like, you know, like, How can you call somebody crank when you got a…you know, I was just one typical HIV provider. I had a 20 year old die on me every week. Like, how can you call somebody crank? Like it’s got to be tested. Yeah, you know, there’s a lot of crazy cancer things, and I don’t approve of these crazy cancer treatments, but I do approve of them being tested in a trial that’s FDA approved. I for sure didn’t think he’s a quack doctor.
GH: Gary Davis never got to test his serum in an FDA-approved trial…could it have been more than a single…could have been a home run? A strikeout? Who knows.
A lot of people around Davis felt like he was being stifled by powerful, unseen forces for nefarious reasons.
Shawn – the doctor’s son – had a different perspective. He said the people his dad trusted in Tulsa to help get the process going just weren’t up to the task. Securing a clinical trial with the FDA isn’t like going through a home inspection.
SD: See the problem my dad kept running into and he ran to his whole life. Everybody can’t do what they fucking say they can do. They just can’t do it. They might have every positive want to be helpful intention in the world, but if they don’t know how to physically logistically get this shit done. They can’t tell you they can do it if they can’t do it.
GH: Someone close to Davis in Tulsa shared over a hundred pages of the doctor’s old documents with me – including his responses to questions from the FDA after his trial was put on clinical hold. Reading them, it became clear, this was a local operation – not one run by pharma companies and a big-name university with high-powered lawyers..
Pages were numbered in pen or not at all, and the doctor’s responses: folksy, personal, and dripping with contempt. He planned to randomize patients using red and green marbles – like actual marbles. He explained why humans can process milk produced by other animals…but most of all, he expressed frustration with investigators and their questions.
I think this quote sums it up best:
“It is, in my opinion, incredible that the concerns proposed by the FDA concerning this simple, uncomplicated, basic clinical trial has stirred up so much concern when we are faced with the devastation of life, quality of life, destruction of families and cities and even countries… that simple, simplistic questions that are common knowledge to most medical students studying basic science are brought up in such a manner….”
GH: The clinical trial application process is complicated, time-consuming, and multifaceted – and for good reason. It’s a process that’s meant to protect participants in clinical trials and potentially millions of future patients – to stop companies from using junk science to sell you, and your doctor, bad drugs – drugs that might do more harm than good. That’s the theory, at least.
And this process requires more than just a thorough researcher and an experienced lawyer. You need armies of them. And a war chest to match.
Those high drug prices? This is what drug companies say justifies them. Shawn told me his dad didn’t have this kind of army at his command and he didn’t want it – which made Shawn mad…
SD: And if you see they can’t do it, then why are you still dealing with them? He’ll stay with them because of loyalty, ‘they helped me do this. Help me do that.’ But they can’t take you to the goal line. If you can’t score, why are you playing the game? They don’t have the knowledge. They don’t have the information. They don’t have to know how they damn sure ain’t got money. But this was falling on deaf ears. He wouldn’t listen to me. You need somebody like Pfizer, being your partner, somebody like Johnson and Johnson being your partner, these little venture capital random lawyer people don’t know how to take a drug to market. They don’t.
GH: To Shawn, it made sense why his dad couldn’t do it with his small team of friends and family in Tulsa. What didn’t make sense was why – during the height of the AIDS epidemic and after seeing Pauline Jolly’s test results, witnessing Precious Thomas’ recovery – instead of deriding the doctor, why didn’t federal health officials at least give him a shot?
SD: Even Fauci, which I talked to Fauci on the phone, too. And he’s like, No, it can’t work, it won’t work.. And I’m saying prove me wrong. Just prove me wrong. You already know a patient that you had, who didn’t take your protocol with a viral load of 100, some 100 parts per mil to zero, and their T cell count went above normal, with no medication from you. So if you already know a patient is gone from two extremes like that, why you don’t at least try what I’m saying in vitro and tell me I’m dumb and this shit don’t work. Just prove me wrong. Prove me wrong. He wouldn’t do it.
GH: But – Shawn acknowledged that there were people who wanted to see the serum fail – who were trying to intimidate his dad – threatening him.
SD: I heard some calls when we were together and somebody would say some bull shit like I’m going to kill you and your family or you’re a gay lover and they’d hang up the phone. And he’d be like there goes another one…
And I was like really? And he’d be like, yep. I said, What did they say? And he would tell me whatever they said. Well, I’m gonna kill you. Calling him nigger. I’m a kill you using your smart nigger, y’all cuz I don’t know who these people were. He didn’t either. He didn’t either. So it’s like, who are they? Who? Nobody really knew. Is it bullshit? Is it real shit? Are they just jokers? Are they serious? Nobody knew.
GH: Other people I talked to from Tulsa had heard similar things – and worse. When I talked to Glashay, I finally decided to ask her about her father’s death…
GH: Um… I’ve heard your dad died from a heart attack, but I’ve also talked to some people who think otherwise, what’s…where do you fall on that?
GD: Um I say the otherwise also. I don’t know how it was like how he passed. I don’t believe it was from a heart attack. No, I don’t. No. His whole death never felt right for me, like I just never accepted that he passed away from a heart attack.
And especially when I looked at it death certificate for the first time. A year ago, it said contributing cause of death was malnutrition. And that’s a joke, because the dude ate all the time. So it was not malnutrition. So I don’t know how you can come up with that as a cause of death. So to me that really just kind of I’m like okay, so obviously you’re not convinced that with a heart attack if you put malnutrition as contributing cause of death so that just made it in my head even more that I don’t believe he died from a heart attack now, and a lot of people that are close to us don’t either.
GH: I asked her if she had ever thought about looking into her dad’s death more…
GSD: Yeah, I really have. And it’s more or less a fear because I’m like, Who’s gonna stand beside me when I go through this? Because I’m like the only sibling here in Tulsa….So and then the fact that they didn’t even perform an actual autopsy is what was weird to me also because the funeral director that did all of my dad’s stuff said he wasn’t a full post, which is an autopsy, and i was like he wasn’t, and he was like no. I was like why are they coming up with a heart attack then if they didn’t know? He was 55. So I was like how are they coming up the heart attack thing if it was never confirmed if he really died from a heart attack because he was never autopsied.
AUDIO FROM BARBERSHOP UNDERNEATH
GH: And now – here I was in Tulsa – just steps away from Gary Davis’ inner sanctum – his office – but unable to get in. The barbershop offered a nice reprieve from the heat – but my sights were set on getting upstairs.
Sharonda keeps making calls to find a key – and chatting with customers..
Grant: Did you know Dr. Davis?
MAN: Yea. MAN: What are you going to see?
SD: What it looks like up there.
WOMAN: You know he had a secret office, too, though?
SD: Yea, we’re going to see it now.
WOMAN: No a different one….
One woman asks if we knew about Davis’ secret office, the one located on Apache St. in another part of town…
WOMAN: I didn’t know what that was, I used to see people go back there and then finally they told me. Oh, okay…
GH: Wait, he had a secret office?
GH: For what?
WOMAN: He had to have one, that’s what I learned. He had to have one cuz his life was threatened.
GH: I didn’t know about that FADE OUT
Off to the side in the barbershop, Sharonda looks really annoyed. In a whisper, she explains that the office was not a secret – it was just a place for her uncle to have private meetings…that’s all…no mystery…no question marks.
And then – finally…we get word that somebody with a key is on their way. They arrive moments later..
SD:…What it look like? Alright, let’s go see it….
GH: We unlock the door, and walk up the flight of stairs to Davis’ old office. Sharonda’s ahead of me…For believers in the serum, this old office was holy ground. The site of a miracle – or a stunning scientific achievement– take your pick.
But as I climb the stairs, my mind cannot stop buzzing from that brief interaction inside the barbershop. The secret office. The specter of threats and violence. It’s clearly upsetting to Sharonda. The fact that people who didn’t really know her uncle keep bringing it up…
SD: I know he went places, I know he did things. I got you. I understand that. But don’t sit here and tell me about my uncle. He didn’t die in vain, that man needs to be up on a pedestal where he belongs. If you wanna keep him down there with your little low lives, keep him down there. But I’m telling you about me and mine. You might have some truth in something that happened, but don’t tell me about his death, I was there, fool. I was there.
GH: Next time on Serum: How did Gary Davis die?
CW: At the end, it broke my heart to see him in that condition where he was I think pretty much homeless.
GH: Who was threatening him?
GD: I’m calling for what it is nobody else wants to say it out loud.
GH: And what other secrets of the serum were hidden here in Oklahoma?
GD: I commit to it and say: it’s weird.collapse
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Brought to you by Serum
A Black doctor, a potential cure for AIDS, and the quest to find out what happened to it. A limited run podcast production of WHYY's The Pulse and Local Trance Media.