Henry Joseph Nicols (August 9, 1973 – May 8, 2000) was an American HIV/AIDS activist who became the first American student to intentionally disclose his HIV infection to his community in March 1991.
Nicols was born with haemophilia, a genetic disorder that meant he needed hundreds of transfusions to help his blood clot. This exposed him to many blood-borne infections, including Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), with which he was diagnosed in 1984, at age eleven.When Nicols was diagnosed, HIV/AIDS was a new, poorly understood disease that was highly stigmatized and had no known treatment. Other HIV-positive hemophiliacs, including the Ray brothers in Arcadia, Florida and Ryan White from Kokomo, Indiana, had to fight lengthy and highly publicized legal battles to be allowed to stay in school, and were attacked by people in their communities. To avoid a similar experience, Nicols and his family chose not to tell anyone, including close friends and family, about his HIV infection.
Nicols’s parents tried give him a normal life and to keep people from judging him by his illness. He grew up in Cooperstown, New York, attended high school and received treatment for his HIV more than 200 miles away in New York City, where a child with AIDS might attract less attention. He was an avid camper and backpacker, took karate lessons, and threw himself into being a Boy Scout.By the time he was seventeen he was working to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor available to Boy Scouts in America. This requires earning at least twenty-one merit badges and creating a project that demonstrates leadership and service to the community.In 1990, Nicols had his first opportunistic infection, which meant that he had progressed from being HIV-positive to having AIDS. Nicols’s doctors told the family that he had about two years left to live.
After being diagnosed with AIDS, Nicols decided that he couldn’t be quiet about his illness any longer. He was working to become an Eagle Scout, and felt that if he wanted to be a leader, he had to be willing to talk about his experience. In an interview with People, Nicols said, “It was time I got it off my chest and did good with it.”
After Nicols publicly announced that he had AIDS, the writer Michael Ryan decided to make a documentary about Nicols’s life. POZ Magazine quoted Ryan as saying, “I had done magazine articles on AIDS and had friends who had died. Part of me looked at Henry and said this is propaganda, a way to tell middle America about AIDS.” Ryan spent almost three years with the Nicols family recording their daily lives. This project turned into the 1993 HBO documentary Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols
As Nicols’ illness progressed and his health began to fail he traveled less and less and, in the Spring of 2000 on his way to a Boy Scout weekend, Nicols had a one car accident, striking a tree. He died eleven days later at the age of twenty-six. There are several monuments to his memory in Cooperstown, New York where his family still lives.