December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

For medical researchers he was a missing link, the human explosive whose promiscuous presence may have triggered an epidemic beyond his imagining. Of 248 American homosexuals diagnosed as having AIDS by the spring of 1982, at least 40 had been either sexually involved with the man whom epidemiologists have come to call Patient Zero or had been intimate with someone who had.

In most respects Gaetan Dugas was an ordinary man, remarkable only for his sexual stamina and a personal charm that time has judged fatal. A French Canadian who worked as a flight steward, he was identified by name last fall in Randy Shilts’s monumental study of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On. Dugas told a researcher that over a 10-year period he had made some 2,500 homosexual contacts in gay bars and bathhouses, mainly in New York and California. Though diagnosed with AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma as early as 1980, he never fully understood or accepted his role as a major transmitter of the virus. Sexually active to the end, Dugas died in his native Quebec City in 1984. He was 32 years old.

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