The season 4 finale of The Crown, “War,” follows Princess Diana as she embarks on her first solo royal engagement overseas—a trip to New York that plants the seeds for the advocacy work she would soon become known for. Having long felt restless and alienated in her role as a royal, and with her marriage to Charles now beyond repair, Diana comes into her own during her time across the pond. In one particularly moving scene, the show recreates Diana’s visit to a pediatric AIDS ward in Harlem, where she hugs a young boy suffering from the disease.
In real life, this incident played out very similarly to how it does onscreen. But groundbreaking though that moment was, it wasn’t Diana’s first visit to an AIDS ward, nor would it be her last. Here’s the true story of Diana’s years-long efforts to raise awareness and dismantle stigma around HIV-AIDS.
London, April 1987
Diana publicly took on the HIV crisis as a cause in the year 1987, when she opened the U.K.’s first HIV/Aids unit, at London’s Middlesex Hospital. During her first visit to the newly opened unit, she made a point of shaking hands with one of the patients, who was terminally ill with AIDS. This was hugely significant, because in the 1980s, stigma around the disease was still running rampant, and many people were afraid to touch those suffering for fear that they could be infected themselves.
In his 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, Andrew Morton discusses the moment, noting that in shaking the patient’s hand Diana had “done more than anyone alive to remove the stigma surrounding the deadly AIDS virus… While she was not able to fully articulate it, Diana had a humanitarian vision for herself that transcended the dull dutiful traditional royal engagements.”
New York City, 1989
During her visit to Harlem Hospital, The New York Times reported, Diana “paused to stroke five babies…[then] the Princess noticed a 7-year-old boy in blue pajamas. ”Are you heavy?” she asked, scooping him up and cuddling him.”
This is similar to the moment depicted in The Crown, where Diana walks up to a young boy on the ward and says hello to him. The hospital director explains to her that this boy is one of many on the ward who desperately need foster homes, but people are afraid to adopt them “because of the stigma.” Diana, visibly upset by this, hugs the boy tightly as cameras flash.
This scene is not a case of dramatic license being taken—the real-life moment really was just as impactful. Dr. Margaret Heagarty, the pediatric director at Harlem Hospital, told Diana: “Your presence here and in Great Britain has shown that folks with this disease can be hugged, can be cared for.”
Four years after the HIV/AIDS ward opened at Middlesex Hospital in London, Diana paid another visit to the ward. This time, she was accompanied by then-First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush. During the visit, Diana had an encounter with a patient which mirrored the one from Harlem two years prior. Morton describes this incident in detail:
As America’s then-first lady, Barbara Bush, discovered when she joined the Princess on a visit to an AIDS ward of the Middlesex hospital in July 1991, there was nothing maudlin about Diana’s attitude towards the sick. When a bed-bound patient burst into tears as the princess was chatting to him, Diana spontaneously put her arms around him and gave him an enormous hug. It was a touching moment which affected the First Lady and others who were present.
In Morton’s transcript of Diana’s own remarks, she describes this visit as a “stepping stone” in her own quest to finding fulfillment and a sense of purpose. “I had always wanted to hug people in hospital beds,” she told Morton. “This particular man who was so ill started crying when I sat on his bed and he held my hand and I thought: “Diana, do it, just do it,” and I gave him an enormous hug. It was just so touching because he clung to me and he cried.”
Throughout the 1990s, Diana continued to visit AIDS patients in a number of countries, including at a children’s hospital in Brazil and a hospice in Toronto, Canada.
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In April of 1991, Diana gave a speech at the Children and AIDS Conference, stating in words what she’d already made clear through her actions. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug,” she said. “Heaven knows they need it.” She went on to explain that it was also safe to share a home, a workspace or a playground with an infected adult or child, emphasizing scientific fact and logic over hysteria and bigotry. “We all need to be alert to the special needs of those for whom AIDS is the last straw in an already heavy burden of discrimination and misfortune.”
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