Dr. Gary Davis, an Ivy League-trained Black physician from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a dream one night that the cure for AIDS would come from a goat. In the new podcast Serum, a reporting team at WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media delve into the unusual story of a Davis’ quest to develop the cure.  

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early ’90s, Davis created a serum from goat blood that he believed could help cure HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He brought his research to the FDA, but it failed to win approval. Davis had powerful critics and ardent supporters. Some sued in court to be allowed to try Davis’ treatment, while others chose an even bolder approach. One mother claimed to have stolen the serum from Davis’ office in order to treat her sick daughter. And after the little girl’s viral load dropped to undetectable levels, it sparked a national debate about whether the serum played a role.

What was the true potential of Davis’ serum?

Dig Deeper

Listen: Check out WHYY and Local Trance Media’s full podcast series, Serum


WHYY team 

Producers: Grant Hill and Myken Scott | Editors: Jad Slayman and Liz Tung | Engineer: Charlie Kai-R | Original Score: Grant Hill and Brandon Tomei | Episode art: Michael Dandley 

Reveal team 

Producer: Ike Sriskandarajah | Editor: Brett Myers | Sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post production: Kathryn Styer Martínez | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:It’s a poison, most world-renowned scientists said, “Oh, it’s impossible.”
Al Letson:In September 2019, reporter Grant Hill gets into a Lyft. The driver likes to talk.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:He said that’s the future. That’s what movie they wanted to do. He wanted to create a cut [inaudible].
Al Letson:His name is Clyde Ashley Sherman and he says the Lyft gig is only temporary. He really works in the entertainment industry. Used to be Jamie Foxx’s assistant, hung around movie sets all the time, played chess with Tom Cruise. Needless to say, Grant is a little skeptical. Sherman keeps talking and eventually asks Grant what he does, when Grant tells him he’s a journalist, Sherman cocks his head towards the back seat, raises his eyes and says he has a really big story if Grant wants to hear it, but Sherman warned that it’s Old Testament kind of stuff.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:… the scientists and the side effects, and they knew how passionate he was about giving it away.
Al Letson:Grant pulls out his phone and starts to record and Sherman tells Grant about his reason for living.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:But I knew my reason for living, my raison d’etre per se.
Al Letson:To fulfill a promise to a scientist.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:Get this medicine because the scientist kind of made me promise because even when he pulled up, I said, “Why’d you [inaudible]?” “I’m going to bring medicine,” he said, “God told me you’re going to be the one that bring the medicine to the world, not me.”
Al Letson:A scientist, he says, was a brilliant black doctor from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Gary Davis. According to Sherman, in the early 90s, Davis discovered a cure for AIDS.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:But I think I’m supposed to [inaudible]. God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and God will find someone who will know exactly-
Al Letson:Of course, by this point, Grant is way more than skeptical. I mean, it sounds crazy.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:… The medicine and give it away because the scientists-
Al Letson:But Sherman keeps going.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:… The glory and all that patent, then I can come back because I still got to make the medicine.
Al Letson:He claims the whole idea for the cure came to Gary Davis in a dream, a dream where the doctor saw himself drawing blood from a goat. Sherman says Davis believed the dream was sign from God that goat’s blood could eliminate the virus and help his community, which had been ravaged by HIV. The vehicle for this cure would be a serum, one that Davis would give away to the world, and that’s where Sherman came in. He tells Grant that he promised the doctor to help get the cure off the ground and into the hands of those who needed it the most.
Grant Hill:… man, we’re definitely going to look into it.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:The last thing I’ll tell you is if you really wanted the proof, because I know you do-
Al Letson:Grant just sits there kind of stunned. Every time he tries to politely exit the car, Sherman says, “Just one more thing.” Sherman tells him that the doctor had been unfairly painted as a quack, that during the height of the AIDS epidemic when other drugs were being fast tracked, the doctor’s serum was dismissed, never approved for clinical trials. He rails against the FDA for never giving it a fair shot and says people desperate for a cure were now beholden to big corporations getting rich from mere treatments. He especially focuses his ire on a DC bureaucrat who Grant had never heard of back in 2019, his name, Anthony Fauci.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:… I’m telling you, it’s totally true, and might scare you a little bit but-
Al Letson:The driver tells Grant that Gary Davis had died, never having a chance to get his treatment off the ground, but that there were a lucky few who are still alive today thanks to the serum.
Grant Hill:Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:[inaudible] because you can prove it to the world.
Grant Hill:Absolutely, man. Absolutely.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:They going to test you. They going to come at you.
Grant Hill:Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure. Clyde, thank you so much. I appreciate you talking to me.
Clyde Ashley Sh…:[inaudible].
Al Letson:Grant eventually gets out of the car unsure to make of what he just heard. On some level, he knew the whole AIDS cure thing was typical bad conspiracy stuff. Neighborhood doctor stumbles upon forbidden knowledge that could save millions only to have it suppressed for profit. But on the other hand, he couldn’t shake just how many small details kept checking out from the driver’s story. He really did work as Jamie Foxx’s assistant. There were photos of him and Tom Cruise at a chess board. This doctor was real too. Ivy League trained, a naval medical officer even. And the driver, he had really traveled across the world with him to try and get this serum off the ground. So Grant started digging. His reporting turned into a podcast series called Serum. It’s from WHYY’s, The Pulse and Local Trance Media. Today we want to bring you part of that story.

It takes us back to the dawn of the HIV AIDS epidemic and has echoes of some of the same players, institutions, and mistrust that played out more recently during the COVID Pandemic. Also, it’s just a wild story and we thought you’d like to hear it. It starts with Grant trying to find someone, a person who the Lyft driver said was the best living evidence that Gary Davis’s serum worked.
Grant Hill:According to old news reports, by 1998, Precious Thomas was in need of a miracle. Back then, Precious was in many ways the face of childhood HIV.
Speaker 4:By the time Precious was six, Rocky knew her little girl could die any day. Rocky was desperate. So when she heard about a doctor-
Grant Hill:Precious and her adoptive mother, Rocky, lived outside Washington, DC and were known for raising awareness about the virus where it mattered most, the nation’s capital. Precious and Rocky are black, and at the time, 49% of all AIDS related deaths were among African Americans, a mortality rate 10 times higher than whites. So the little girl’s advocacy felt urgent. And not only did she survive, but she and her mother Rocky declared on television news that it was all thanks to Gary Davis’s goat serum.
Speaker 4:… a new treatment he created by injecting a goat. Rocky didn’t care if it sounded crazy.
Rocky Thomas:It didn’t matter how nuts it was. Right at that point in time-
Grant Hill:Despite all that past exposure, I was having trouble finding her online. But I did find Rocky. We started messaging and planned to talk in person. By the time our schedules lined up, the world had changed. Another deadly virus was holding the country in its grip, the novel coronavirus.
Anthony Fauci:The way we can respond to it and mitigate it is to do the kind of distancing socially and fast.
Grant Hill:We were a month into the lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so we settled for a phone call.
Rocky Thomas:Hello?
Grant Hill:Hey, Rocky.
Rocky Thomas:Hello. Hi.
Grant Hill:Hi. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Sorry for all the technical… Rocky tells me the baby cooing in the background is her youngest daughter. She’s two years old.
Rocky Thomas:I have another baby. I had her since she was two months too. Her mother’s paranoid schizophrenic, so her mother left her in the hospital.
Grant Hill:Did you adopt?
Rocky Thomas:Sure did.
Grant Hill:All in all, Rocky says she’s helped raise 13 children and that she officially adopted two of them. Tell me about how you first came to adopt Precious. How did that happen?
Rocky Thomas:Her mother was friends with my aunt. My aunt basically lived in a crack house.
Grant Hill:Precious was born in the summer of 1991 to a biological mother who struggled with drug addiction. Rocky’s aunt was friends with the little girl’s birth mother. They lived in the same place and it wasn’t long until Rocky started looking after the newborn.
Rocky Thomas:Maybe a week, then the weekend, then the weekends added up to a week and two weeks, three weeks, four weeks.
Grant Hill:By the time Precious was two months old, Rocky says she made arrangements with the girl’s biological mother to take care of Precious permanently. Then only months later…
Rocky Thomas:She got sick when she turned one.
Grant Hill:Fevers, thrush on her tongue. This is when Rocky found out Precious was HIV positive.
Rocky Thomas:AIDS basically wasn’t talked about.
Grant Hill:Precious was quickly admitted to DC General Hospital, a ward with other HIV infants and babies. Some had been abandoned there.
Rocky Thomas:And some of the babies nobody was ever going to see or anything, so she was on ward like that.
Grant Hill:According to Rocky, the custody agreement for Precious wasn’t formalized yet, which meant Rocky couldn’t make any decisions concerning the little girl’s healthcare.
Rocky Thomas:I went to the court while she was in the hospital and did the petition for me to get her so she can be treated.
Grant Hill:Rocky says she didn’t think twice about the road ahead. She formally adopted Precious. From then on, Rocky says the little girl’s doctors tried everything to help her, but she says nothing was working, that they tried one drug after another with varying degrees of failure. But at a time when many with HIV were ignored or judged, Precious wasn’t.
Speaker 8:Her story went public, leading to headlines in suburban Washington, DC newspapers, appearances with celebrities, even a visit from President Clinton.
Grant Hill:So what was Precious like as a child? I mean, like you said, she was pretty sick from the beginning, right? So how did this shape her life as a kid?
Rocky Thomas:Well, even with her being sick, she was a smart child, very smart.
Grant Hill:Rocky says Precious wasn’t afraid of attention, that she liked the spotlight. By the time she was in elementary school, she was basically an activist, started connecting with others who were positive. Soon a friend suggested Rocky apply with the National Institute of Health to allow Precious to participate in trials with experimental drug treatments. She got in.
Rocky Thomas:There was so much medicine. Oh my God.
Grant Hill:Some of this is documented in old news stories.
Speaker 8:For the last year, Precious has been monitored by doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She was enrolled in two studies or protocols.
Precious Thomas:One didn’t do anything at all.
Speaker 8:It requires intense monitoring while patients receive injections to boost the immune system and pills to drop the viral load. That’s the amount of virus detectable in the blood. Though Precious never took the pills from the NIH protocol, she got sick from the few injections she did take.
Precious Thomas:They came in the room. I had already packed the room, packed up the room and said, “No more.”
Grant Hill:Rocky says it didn’t work. More disappointment. Treatments that just seem to make Precious feel sicker and leave her weaker than before. Then one day, Rocky got word about a doctor from Tulsa who believed he had discovered a viable treatment, maybe even a cure, derived from goat’s blood. So how did you first find out about him?
Rocky Thomas:Channel Five Fox did a story on a man that was on his deathbed. From that segment, my phone started going, ringing off the hook. People were calling, people was asking, “Did you see that? Did you see that?”
Grant Hill:The news story Rocky saw was about a man from Oklahoma living with HIV, who couldn’t take the best treatment options available at the time, like AZT. By 1997, AZT and other breakthrough drugs had begun to usher in a new era of hope among many living with AIDS. But the man on Rocky’s TV set was not so lucky. His name, Bobby Cowan.
Speaker 10:Bobby Cowan is dying of AIDS. He is also deathly allergic to the cocktail of powerful life extending drugs routinely given most AIDS patients today. He has a very blunt way of summing up his dilemma. You can’t take AZT?
Bobby Cowan:Nope.
Speaker 10:You can’t take protease inhibitors?
Bobby Cowan:Nope.
Speaker 10:If you do?
Bobby Cowan:I die.
Speaker 10:However, if you don’t?
Bobby Cowan:I die.
Dr. Gary Davis:Take a deep breath.
Speaker 10:Cowan’s physician, Dr. Gary Davis of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a treatment that he believes will help, maybe even cure Bobby Cowan. But it is so unusual the Food and Drug Administration is banning the treatment.
Grant Hill:In the news clip, Bobby Cowan wears a black sweater, a cowboy hat, large framed glasses. He’s a middle-aged white man with a desperate look on his face. At that point, AIDS was claiming thousands and thousands of lives in the US every year, and those living with it were fighting a disease that was shrouded in shame and fear, ostracized by society, ignored by their government, or even belittled. That was the case from the very beginning. You can hear it in this recording from October 1982, about three weeks after the CDC first used the term AIDS to describe the virus. The mysterious illness had already killed about 600 Americans and a reporter asked President Ronald Reagan’s Deputy Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, about the disturbing trend for the first time.
Lester:Over a third of them have died. It’s known as Gay Plague.
Grant Hill:Yeah, that’s laughter you’re hearing. The reporter tried again.
Lester:No, it is. I mean, it’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died and I wondered if the President is aware of it.
Larry Speakes:I don’t have it. Are you?
Lester:In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke.
Larry Speakes:No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Lester:Does the President? Does anybody at the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
Larry Speakes:I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any-
Lester:Nobody knows?
Larry Speakes:… There’s been no personal experience here, Lester.
Lester:No. I mean, I thought you were keeping-
Larry Speakes:I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no patients suffering from A-I-D-S or whatever it is.
Lester:The President doesn’t have it.
Grant Hill:It took President Reagan four years after the first known case to publicly say the name of this illness, AIDS. That was on September 17th, 1985. Surveys from that time showed a quarter of Americans thought people with AIDS had it coming, but the crisis was getting too big to not act. By the end of that year, known AIDS-related deaths in the United States climbed to over 8,000 and Congress nearly doubled its funding for research to $190 million. The wheels were turning slowly though, that stigma had staying power. There seemed to be very little urgency, especially since the outbreak appeared contained within already marginalized communities, gay men, Black Americans, Haitian immigrants, and intravenous drug users. It was easy for the country and its medical establishment to turn away. So activists took to the streets to demand more funding, more support, and better options. Some went directly to FDA headquarters.
Speaker 14:[inaudible] Where was the FDA!
Grant Hill:Radical action was everywhere, thanks to a group called ACT UP. Peaceful protests, die-ins, spectacular demonstrations, but they also attracted the attention of law enforcement. Heavily redacted records showed the FBI had at least one informant within the group.
Speaker 14:… business as usual! No more business as usual! No more business as usual!
Grant Hill:Beyond the protests, the activists also collected research and data on the illness and potential treatments. One big demand was to be allowed to try new or developing medications that seem to show promise for HIV.
Speaker 16:This isn’t an acyclovir molecule, it’s representing that there’s treatments out there that the NIH isn’t testing, they’re not-
Speaker 14:We’re dying of red tape! We’re dying of red tape!
Grant Hill:Right to try laws did not yet exist then, but people were pushing, fighting to try different treatments that had not yet gotten the stamp of approval from the government. Bobby Cowan, the man Rocky had seen on TV, was one of them suing the federal government to be allowed to try Gary Davis’s serum.
Speaker 10:He wants the FDA to get out of his business and allow him to take the goat serum.
Bobby Cowan:Look, I’m in a very unique situation. I have faith in God. I have trust in my doctor and I have belief in the serum. Yeah, my business, I’m living this, Washington DC is not living this. The FDA is not living this. I go through this every day. I go to bed. I don’t know if I’m going to wake up. I’ll see Christmas. I don’t know if it’s going to be my last Christmas. And I have a constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and if I’m dead, I’m not going to be too happy.
Grant Hill:I found the attorney who represented Bobby Cowan during this case. Jeff Nix from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was working with Gary Davis at the time, filing paperwork to move the serum toward FDA approval, so he took on the Cowan case too.
Jeff Nix:Bob was just very quiet, just real respectful, just a really nice guy. And he was a biker, a Harley, but wasn’t a Hell’s Angel or any of that stuff. And I know he lived in a mobile home park out west. He was just very ordinary working class guy and his wife, they were just such nice people.
Grant Hill:Nice people who were running out of time.
Jeff Nix:He had told me this, that he was so far down in the well that it was either a Hail Mary like Gary’s serum or Bob would be pushing up daisies.
Grant Hill:Jeff said he knew his odds for winning the case were slim, especially in such a conservative jurisdiction, but he wanted to try anyway.
Jeff Nix:The day of the hearing, the courtroom was packed with people who were advocates and were supportive, Black and white.
Grant Hill:Jeff Nix and Bobby Cowan lost their first attempt in court, but they had other legal options they could still pursue. Meanwhile, over 1,000 miles away, Rocky Thomas had learned a valuable lesson from Bobby Cowan’s story. This doctor from Oklahoma seemed to have something worth fighting for and if she wanted to get her hands on this treatment, it would be better to ask forgiveness than to try to get permission.
Rocky Thomas:I took it.
Speaker 19:What do you mean you took it?
Rocky Thomas:I took the serum.
Speaker 19:You stole it?
Rocky Thomas:I stole it.
Al Letson:A desperate mother, her sick daughter, and a fateful trip to meet the goat doctor, Gary Davis. That’s next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re partnering with WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media to bring you part of their podcast series Serum. When we left off, Rocky Thomas was hoping to find help for her daughter, Precious, and she was about to meet Gary Davis, the doctor who claimed to have discovered a possible cure for AIDS after receiving a dream from God. Reporter Grant Hill spoke with Rocky to learn what happened next. It’s a story she’s told before, kind of, but this time Rocky shares something she never said publicly. Grant takes it from here.
Grant Hill:In April 1998, Rocky hatched a secret plan to get Precious to Tulsa to meet Gary Davis. The two got on a train, made the long trip, and when they finally arrived, Davis and his staff gave them a warm welcome.
Rocky Thomas:It was great because we had been communicating. It was like we knew him and then we met the family and everybody was excited to meet this little girl.
Grant Hill:They sat down in his office to talk about the serum. Davis later told reporters that he wanted to explain why it might be effective for Precious.
Dr. Gary Davis:She made me wanted to learn about the procedure and what a neutralizing antibody was, and how do you give this particular serum, and what are the side effects. I’ve had 100 people, 1,000, ask me the same thing.
Rocky Thomas:It was like sitting in class. We had tons questions.
Grant Hill:Rocky wanted to know how it worked. Would there be any side effects?
Rocky Thomas:Is she going to act like a goat? Is she want to eat everything? He had his dry board eraser and showing me how the antibodies worked and what it did to the goat, and it was a whole a lesson.
Grant Hill:Rocky later told reporters that Davis informed her that the serum wasn’t FDA approved. Administering it to Precious might be dangerous and illegal.
Rocky Thomas:He told me all the proper channels didn’t go. I called FDA, I talked to Precious’ attorney, but by me going through all the proper channels, Precious was still getting sick.
Grant Hill:But Rocky had already tried to go through the proper channels. She had been working with doctors at the NIH in Washington to treat Precious, but Precious’ health was still poor. So Rocky didn’t come all the way to Oklahoma for a pharmacology lesson or a simple consultation. She needed results. So Rocky claimed she took matters into her own hands, quietly sneaking up the spiral staircase while the doctor was preoccupied, to Davis’s private office where the serum was stored in a freezer.
Rocky Thomas:That’s how it had to be kept in a freezer, it was in a vial.
Grant Hill:She told reporters that behind his back she grabbed some and told no one, especially not Davis.
Speaker 20:What did you do?
Rocky Thomas:I took the goat serum. I took it and with the knowledge that I had, I did what I had to do with it.
Speaker 20:You took it without the doctor’s knowledge?
Rocky Thomas:Yes. I took it.
Speaker 19:What do you mean you took it?
Rocky Thomas:I took the serum.
Speaker 19:You stole it.
Rocky Thomas:I stole it.
Speaker 19:Did you think about asking Dr. Davis?
Rocky Thomas:He couldn’t.
Speaker 19:You asked him for it?
Rocky Thomas:I did.
Speaker 19:And what did he say?
Rocky Thomas:He couldn’t do it because it wasn’t FDA approved.
Grant Hill:It sounded improbable, Rocky’s heist of the prized serum, her tiptoeing up a spiral staircase in the middle of a busy doctor’s office to save her little girl. But that was her story and she stuck with it for just a little over 20 years until she tells me a different story during our phone call. Now she says Gary Davis was in on it the whole time.
Rocky Thomas:He couldn’t administer it to her because it wasn’t FDA approved. He couldn’t administer it to her, but I could. Turn your back, you don’t know nothing. Turn your back. I’m going to give it to her.
Grant Hill:So you told him to turn his back and you went and got the serum?
Rocky Thomas:I sure did. You ain’t giving me nothing. I’m not trying to get you in no trouble right now. I just want her to feel better.
Grant Hill:After this reveal, it became apparent to me that Davis was good at bluffing or maybe to put it a little more bluntly, lying. Here he is talking to reporters about his reaction to the theft from his office.
Speaker 20:Why didn’t you report this to the authorities?
Dr. Gary Davis:I understand her position. I don’t agree with the methodology, but I do understand she wants to try to save her daughter’s life.
Grant Hill:So if Rocky’s theft was a coverup, if Gary Davis really did give her the serum, why didn’t he also give it to Bobby Cowan, the motorcyclist suing the federal government to get access to the treatment? News reports of the time portrayed Cowan as a desperate dying man fighting to get his hands on Davis’s serum. His last hope, if only the FDA would get out of the way. But Jeff Nix, the lawyer who was representing Cowan and trying to help Davis, told me that while Bobby Cowan may have enjoyed giving Washington the finger, Bobby didn’t wait for their approval. He was already taking the serum.
Jeff Nix:That’s accurate. He was living pretty normally. He was eating pretty normally. He was a very slender guy so he always looked kind of undernourished, but he was saying that he had gained weight. Just his general attitude was just a whole lot better. And his wife was just, I mean, she would almost get tears in her eyes when he would talk and she would talk about how much better off he was.
Grant Hill:Why then did Bobby and Gary Davis file a lawsuit?
Jeff Nix:We thought that it was possible that through the suit we could get some sort of legitimacy to expand the operation and treat more people.
Grant Hill:Jeff says Davis wanted to force the federal government to examine his work, to give the serum a shot. This way he could scale up the operation without worrying about blow back from the FDA or state medical boards.
Jeff Nix:My dealings with the government had been limited, but I thought if we can get into settlement discussion, maybe something good, some sort of compromise that will allow Gary to treat people can be arrived at.
Grant Hill:This makes sense in light of some other things Jeff Nix told me too. Jeff says, Dr. Davis was somebody who cared deeply about his community and his patients.
Jeff Nix:He exuded a trust that was just palpable and I’m sure you’ve run into people that you haven’t been with them very long, but you just go, I believe this person. And people believed Gary and people believed in Gary, and so I just really became a follower.
Grant Hill:At one point, Jeff followed Gary Davis all the way to Washington, DC. A sympathetic politician, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston had put in a good word for Davis and was able to get him a seat with higher ups at the NIH. Many people spoke of contentious meetings between Davis and federal health officials, but according to Jeff, this one got personal.
Jeff Nix:So we went to Washington to try to talk to NIH and not only did we not get anywhere, but the Director was just extremely hostile and made fun of Gary’s disability. Gary’s got a really bad back and limps and I’ll be damned if the guy didn’t say, “Well, I’m going to look out the window and watch you come up our along sidewalk and just see how well you do.” So that kind of set the tone and sure enough, we got into the meeting and the Director said, “Oh, been there, done that.” He walked out.
Grant Hill:Do you think race played a role in how Davis was treated?
Jeff Nix:Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a Black thing. The people involved were Black.
Grant Hill:Involved with the serum, you mean?
Jeff Nix:Yes.
Grant Hill:So the lawsuit Jeff filed at the end of 1997 was basically a ramrod to open doors that seemed so firmly closed. That didn’t happen. Jeff lost that suit and a second suit filed along with Gary Davis a short time later. But those court cases did spread the word about the serum. More and more people from the north side in Tulsa, the mostly Black part of town, started coming to Davis asking for serum.
Jeff Nix:And they left going, “This guy’s got something. We’re going to do everything we can to keep him going, to keep him treating people,” so it spread.
Grant Hill:Sounded like quite a few came after that, it wasn’t just one or two.
Jeff Nix:Yes.
Grant Hill:So what happened to Cowan?
Jeff Nix:He continued to be treated. I continued to have some contact with him and he continued to improve. It is funny, as a lawyer, you come into people’s story when it’s already underway and then you get out of people’s stories before it’s over. So after the lawsuits, there was no connection between Bob and me. There wasn’t anything he needed and there wasn’t anything I thought I could do for him, so I totally lost touch with him.
Grant Hill:My searches for Bobby Cowan came up empty. No Facebook pages, no valid current addresses, no obituaries. I thought I found a relative, called him up, started to explain everything and-
Speaker 21:That’s really good for you. Bye.
Grant Hill:Oh, okay. Goodbye. He promptly hung up. I marked it in my notes. The fate of the first known person to have tried Gary Davis’s goat serum as of right now at least, unknown. In the fall of 1998 with the story of the theft providing cover for Dr. Davis, Rocky and Precious talked more and more freely about using the goat serum, which according to Rocky started to work right after she first administered the serum to Precious in their hotel room in Tulsa.
Rocky Thomas:She started feeling better immediately. When I say immediately, it was like goat sleep and wake up and a whole nother person. It was to the point where she was, I had to yell at her to stop. And I had never had to ever tell that baby to stop doing nothing because she didn’t have the energy to do nothing.
Grant Hill:Rocky says Precious was now well enough to fly. So Rocky claims she wrapped the serum in dry ice, stuffed it in her luggage, and snuck it through the pre 9/11 security at the airport. She says she kept the injections going for her daughter at home, but Precious was still enrolled in studies with the NIH and soon she was due back for routine blood work. At first, Rocky was hesitant to tell the girls’ doctors at the NIH about the serum.
Rocky Thomas:Even NIH saw are difference. Everybody that knew her saw a difference.
Grant Hill:So you’re going into the NIH at this point a month later, are you feeling nervous?
Rocky Thomas:Yeah, very nervous. Yes.
Grant Hill:Okay, so you’re walking into the NIH, you’re feeling nervous, and they take the tests and what does it say?
Rocky Thomas:Her labs came back and they wanted to talk to me. It was like the FEMA doctors wanted to talk to me and they took me in, and we were talking, and they said we had some good news.
Grant Hill:The doctors told Rocky that Precious’ viral load was undetectable. No sign of HIV in her blood.
Rocky Thomas:And at this point I’m in shock. I’m like, I’m just sitting here like, okay, I’m on edge. What’s going on? Precious was in the toy room and when they told me that, all I could was cry. And in the meantime, nobody still didn’t know. Nobody still didn’t know.
Grant Hill:Eventually Rocky decided to tell them that Precious was not on any of the medications that they had given her at the NIH. Instead, she was using the stolen serum. She later told reporters about this.
Speaker 20:Then what happened?
Rocky Thomas:Nothing.
Speaker 20:Rocky says she tried to talk to health officials at the NIH about the serum. She was hoping she could help Dr. Davis get his serum approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And what did they say?
Rocky Thomas:They didn’t want no part of it, it was like nobody wanted to talk about it.
Grant Hill:Rocky and Precious pushed for answers, tried to spread word about the serum. In 1998, Precious was the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that focused on AIDS.
Precious Thomas:I know many of you are looking at me and saying, what could a little girl like me have to say. My name is Precious Thomas, who thought something this special could be found in a goat.
Grant Hill:The apparent success of the serum could have been a revelation that rocked the HIV research community. Maybe even set the agenda for research to come or maybe not. Being undetectable isn’t the same as being cured. It was possible the little girl’s HIV levels might shoot right back up again. Besides, individual anecdotes are no substitute for big peer-reviewed clinical studies. Her improvement could have just been a fluke. But why did it seem like there was no interest at all at the NIH? Rocky says she pushed for answers and went higher and higher up the chain.
Rocky Thomas:Yeah, we talked to Fauci out here.
Grant Hill:That’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I wasn’t able to confirm this detail with Fauci. I don’t know if he met with Rocky, but during the AIDS epidemic, Fauci was one of the people calling the shots in terms of research dollars and clinical trials. He eventually worked with activists and community leaders to better understand how researchers could be more inclusive in their trial designs. By the time of Rocky’s revelation, Fauci had already heard of Gary Davis and his goat serum. He denounced it in that TV report Rocky saw on Bobby Cowan.
Anthony Fauci:Not only is there not any basis for it to work, but there is evidence to the contrary that it won’t work because this type of approach has been tried before in an even more sophisticated way.
Speaker 22:So you’re saying that medical science has looked-
Grant Hill:I asked Rocky about her talk with Fauci about the treatment.
Rocky Thomas:It was fine, but he didn’t want have nothing to do with it.
Grant Hill:Did he say why not?
Rocky Thomas:He said because it’s been done before.
Grant Hill:Hmm. I mean, obviously at this point it would seem to be working at least. It just seems, I don’t know, I have a hard time-
Rocky Thomas:There wasn’t no other medicine that she was taking that was working.
Grant Hill:Yeah.
Rocky Thomas:They could have said what the hell they wanted to say. I knew what I had given her and I knew what she wasn’t taking.
Grant Hill:And still even in the face of that, they didn’t want to have anything to do with the serum.
Rocky Thomas:Exactly.
Al Letson:Grant reached out to the doctor who oversaw Precious’ treatment at the NIH more than 20 years earlier, but she declined to talk about the goat serum. So did Anthony Fauci. But then Grant learned that all these years later, even after the death of Gary Davis, the serum lives on.
Speaker 23:He had asked my sister to go against her nursing license to inject this bottle of well, mystery serum.
Al Letson:A miracle to some who are desperate and sick, a snake oil to federal regulators. We parse the mystery of serum. That’s next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re bringing you part of a series that was originally made for WHYY’s Health and Science show, The Pulse and Local Trance Media, it’s called Serum. It traces a drug literally dreamed up by family doctor in Tulsa. It was made from goat’s blood and billed as a possible cure for AIDS. Some have called it a miracle drug, but regulators have insisted that it doesn’t work and it never gained FDA approval. Joining me now is Grant Hill, the reporter who made the series. Grant, how you doing?
Grant Hill:I’m good. How are you?
Al Letson:Good. So let’s start with Precious Thomas. I’m old enough where I actually remember her being in the news. She was a little girl who had HIV and she took the drug in the 90s. Her mom told the world that it saved her life. Do we know what happened to her?
Grant Hill:Yeah, so eventually I was able to connect with Precious.
Precious Thomas:My name is Precious Thomas.
Grant Hill:Did you want to say a different name?
Precious Thomas:Yes.
Grant Hill:You can say a different name. She actually now goes by a different name. At first, she was pretty reticent to talk, said she didn’t want to speak with me with her mom there. She wanted to speak with me one on one and we did connect and we had a pretty lengthy conversation.
Al Letson:What does she say about that period of her life?
Grant Hill:Well, she’s trying to move past it honestly. As you mentioned, she was essentially a celebrity, an activist who was all over the news. But she gives a very different story than her adoptive mother, Rocky, gave me.
Precious Thomas:I don’t remember being very, very, very, very sick, like bedridden sick as a young child because if I was, how was I doing all of these speaking engagements.
Grant Hill:She described a really tough childhood then, pressure to be this celebrity, to raise money, to be a symbol, and she wanted a different life. She was too young to really have a choice in the matter at that point.
Al Letson:What does she think of the serum?
Grant Hill:She doesn’t really know what to make of it. Contrary to what Rocky told me, told other journalists at the time, Precious remembers being on the NIH medications that they were giving her. She remembers at least taking some of that medication. And she may have not followed the protocol completely, but she remembers still taking that medication along with being injected with the serum.
Precious Thomas:Because I was still taking my medicine, so if I’m still taking my medicine and then I’m taking this serum, how do we even know?
Grant Hill:She doesn’t know what caused her viral load to go down to zero. That had never happened prior. So to her, it appears that the serum had something to do with it, but she really isn’t sure.
Precious Thomas:So what was it? Was it a combination of both? Was it just the serum alone or how much of the serum that needed to be taken? How much of the medicine needed to be in my body for it to be?
Al Letson:Did her viral levels stay low?
Grant Hill:We’re really not sure. Eventually she started taking the standard antiretrovirals that became available and so prevalent. She was eventually hospitalized after she came down with an illness that’s common for those who are in the throes of the AIDS. And so it appears like her viral levels went back up, but that was years after all these events took place.
Al Letson:So you mentioned the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, their experts back then, including Anthony Fauci, were really skeptical and dismissive about the serum. Is that how they still think of it, if they think of it at all?
Grant Hill:I really don’t know what they make of it all these years later. Both Anthony Fauci and the doctor who oversaw Precious’ protocol back then, they would not provide any comment on what happened. Fauci certainly was dismissive of the serum from the beginning, but that attitude seemed to have changed. When another company applied to conduct a clinical trial using another serum that seemed to be based on Gary Davis’s theory, they were actually approved for a clinical trial and received NIH funding. So while there was a clear position from at least Fauci that this could not work, for whatever reason, in the years following the NIH funded a trial based on this same idea. I spoke with the lead researcher for the company that eventually did get approval for a clinical trial with a serum that was based on Gary Davis’s work. It was a Harvard researcher named Dr. Bruce Dezube.
Dr. Bruce Dezub…:All the folks at Harvard, like I mean all, the Ethics Board, the Scientific Board, they were totally okay with the idea. Not one person said to me, WTF. And certainly no patient said that.
Grant Hill:Back in the early 2000s, they went through a phase one clinical trial where they were just trying to gauge whether their serum was safe, not necessarily how effective it was, but this researcher said flat out, it basically worked.
Dr. Bruce Dezub…:You can read the article. It went very smoothly. In a handful of patients that lowered their HIV load, it worked.
Grant Hill:Now he said it wasn’t a home run, it may have just been a single in terms of whether this would stand up to more testing, whether they could get levels of dosing correct for each individual patient to see whether it could really have a widespread effect on the epidemic potentially. But it appeared to be safe and it appeared to show promise. Now, they tried to go through more clinical trials, but they ultimately couldn’t recruit enough patients to see exactly how effective their serum was.
Al Letson:I was in middle school, I believe, when I heard about Magic Johnson becoming infected with HIV, and I just remember that time being so intense. So many people were dying and everybody was scared. And as a Black man, you hear this stuff about Gary Davis, that he had this serum and he wasn’t taken seriously. One of the first things that come to my mind is, was it racism? Was it this idea that there’s no way in the world this Black man could figure this out? On the flip side, you look at what happened with COVID and all of these cures that people were coming up with and were just… It was just straight up cash grab. Right? So I think that the NIH is in a very tough position.
Grant Hill:That’s a great point. A lot of his supporters question why Davis wasn’t offered a hand by the NIH, why they never offered to help go through that process if there was promise to this thing and why he was denigrated instead. I think that’s a valid question to ask, and unfortunately I didn’t get an answer to that.
Al Letson:I guess the question that comes to mind is do we even need the serum today? We have really effective treatments for AIDS. The death toll for this disease is nowhere near what it was decades ago. So why are we still talking about serum now?
Grant Hill:That’s a great question and yeah, I want to emphasize there are very effective treatments for HIV at the moment. There still is no cure. Supporters of the serum argue that this maybe could fill some gaps. It was generally seen then as an alternative to kind of the antiretrovirals that were hitting the market at the time that for many people caused some severe side effects. Now there are more options available and I think supporters of the serum see the serum maybe not as a cure, but as potentially another option. But again, I want to stress that would have to come after clinical trial process and FDA approval, which there are a few people who are still working to try to get the serum out there.
Al Letson:So you’re saying there are people supporting the serum now still even after all these years?
Grant Hill:Oh yeah. That’s part of why this story is still so interesting is that people are still promoting it for all sorts of things. I talked to a few people for the podcast series who continue to push versions of this serum to this day. One of those people is someone named Douglas Arthur McClain Sr.
Douglas Arthur …:It’s all word of mouth advertising. I have throat cancer. I talked to this guy over here who went to Mexico and 10 injections and he’s cured and he’s been cancer free.
Grant Hill:McClain is promoting it as a possible treatment for throat cancer and other ailments. On the phone with me he called it a cure and he’s still selling it to people through a clinic in Mexico. I know this because after our series came out, I got a call from a woman from New Hampshire about it.
Ashley White:He opened up saying he was an immunologist researcher, not a doctor. Then he also kind of said, I’m not a salesman. I’m not here to sell this, but my phone rings off the hook for this because people just want it.
Grant Hill:That’s Ashley White. She, like so many of the people who get interested in the serum, is desperate. She has a son with a rare bone disorder and said she’s willing to try almost anything to help him. So she met with Douglas McClain about the serum at a hotel in Boston, but in the end, she did not trust him or the serum. She says that she decided he was a con artist taking advantage of people like her and so she ended up calling the FBI.
Ashley White:The conversation of me wearing a wire came up and I of course was like, hell yeah.
Grant Hill:Ashley says the FBI took an interest and says she eventually met with McClain again and wore a wire. I checked with the FBI about all this, but they wouldn’t confirm whether an investigation is ongoing. But later I got McClain’s reaction and he basically admitted yeah, he probably shouldn’t be promoting the serum like that.
Douglas Arthur …:Okay. So I mean, everything she said I said is what any doctor would say, and I’ll admit maybe I shouldn’t have done it.
Al Letson:What is it about this story that made you want to spend years on it?
Grant Hill:It just kind of fell into my lap in a cab one day and the fact that no one had really answered the many questions that still lingered from decades ago about this man and his dream, it really just hooked me. And so much about Gary Davis’s story, he himself made a lot of this about fate, right? A dream from God about a miraculous recovery and something about getting in that cab, speaking to Sherman, it felt like fate for me too, and I felt like I had to keep going.
Al Letson:Yeah, I absolutely understand. Grant, thanks for coming in.
Grant Hill:Thanks so much, Al. I really appreciate it.
Al Letson:That’s reporter, Grant Hill. Serum was created by WHYY’s, The Pulse and Local Trance Media. You can hear the rest of the series on the Serum podcast. You can find that link on our website, revealnews.org.

Grant produced Serum, along with Mike and Scott at WHYY. It was engineered by Charlie Kaier and edited by Jad Sleiman and Liz Tung. Ike Sriskandarajah help adapt Serum for Reveal. And Brett Meyers was the editor. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Original score by Grant Hill and Brandon Tome. Sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Katherine Steyer Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers of Brett Meyers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

Ike Sriskandarajah was a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a former production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.