How Princess Diana Used the Power of Touch to Smash Stigmas: 'She Wasn't a Gloves Person'

"She was very real about human contact," her brother Charles Spencer tells PEOPLE

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987, Princess Diana did something truly remarkable: She shook hands with an AIDS patient in London, a simple act that reverberated around the globe and smashed stigmas at a time when public fears about catching the disease were prevalent.

To her brother Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, it was not a surprise. “She was not really a gloves person,” he tells PEOPLE.

“She was very real and very about human contact,” he says. “And what really mattered that day was to get across a very clear message that, ‘I’m going to touch this gentleman — and you can all exist in a community with people who are suffering, and we must help.”

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Today her sons Prince William and Prince Harry have carried on the mantle of her work of breaking down barriers toward public health, with Harry taking an HIV test alongside Grammy winner Rihanna in 2017.

Sharon Smith, a manager at London’s Mildmay hospital recalls the many times Diana would come to visit patients – often in secret. “She’d ring up and say, ‘I’ll be along this evening, no cameras, it’s a private visit.’ She’d just come in jeans, jacket, baseball cap or from a dinner or a gala in all her finery and have a cup of tea to see the patients.”

Visiting New York in 1988, Diana headed to a children’s hospital in Harlem where she met staff including Dr. Margaret Heagarty.

“When she picked this little boy up, she said ‘Oh you’re as heavy as Harry!'” recalls Heagarty. “Here she was, this impeccably dressed woman who was beautiful beyond belief, holding an infant with AIDS.”

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Princess Diana on the 20th Anniversary of Her Tragic Death

Another key cause later in Diana’s life was tackling the lethal landmines that littered war zones in Angola, Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

Jerry White, CEO of Global Impact Strategies, and Ken Rutherford journeyed with Diana to Bosnia in August 1997 – her last humanitarian tour.

Diana, Princess of Wales wearing protective body armour and
Tim Graham/Getty

“I saw how she had this eye for suffering,” he recalls. “She used to say to me, ‘Jerry, you have to care enough to show up first and foremost.’ A father was showing his stump and his scars. But Diana would reach out, unintimidated, and touch. In another case, with a young 16-year-old girl who was missing a limb, she’d touch her necklace, just little gestures showing that Diana was paying attention.”

He adds, “I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders all around the world. I’ve never experienced this charismatic light energetically coming off of someone. And, actually, changing things.”

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