In 1957, Bob and Shirley Young welcomed the arrival of their second child, Peter William, two years after the birth of his sister, Nancy. A curious, happy, and popular boy, Peter enjoyed the outdoors, and engaged in sports, camping and swimming. At eight years old, he appreciated musical theatre and wrote his thoughts in a diary which his mother gave him for Christmas.
As he would later recount in an episode of the Dr. Peter Diaries, Peter realized at an early age he was not interested in girls, but was attracted to boys. Thinking it was a phase, “I decided that maybe I could convert myself.” After looking through some Playboy magazines, the teen found he was more interested in the fully-clothed men in advertisements rather than the nude women. His disinterest in females “...wasn’t something I was going to be able to change.” However, Peter felt unable to discuss his feelings with friends or family.
At the time, homosexuals in Canada faced considerable discrimination. In 1965, when Peter was a child, Everett Klippert was imprisoned and labelled a “dangerous sexual offender” after he admitted he was gay and had had sexual relations with men. In 1969, around the time Peter became a teenager, same-sex sexual activity was finally decriminalized in Canada. However, for years gay men and lesbians faced widespread discrimination, including in employment, housing and family law. Sexual orientation would not be added to the Canadian Human Rights Act until 1996.
During his studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Jepson-Young dated men but kept his social life secret from family. In 1979, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
Determined to become a physician, Jepson-Young wrote the entrance exam for UBC’s School of Medicine three times before he was accepted in May 1981. He later described the day he learned of his successful application as “the happiest day of his life.” With a sharp mind and nearly photographic memory, Jepson-Young did well throughout the intensive four years of studies.
While on his practicum at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, he heard the disturbing news that one of his ex-boyfriends was diagnosed with AIDS. Although he was concerned, Jepson-Young’s mind was focussed on his blossoming career, which included an internship at Ottawa General Hospital in Ontario.
While in Ottawa in the spring of 1986, Jepson-Young developed a persistent cough. Returning to Vancouver after his Ottawa stint, the usually athletic and energetic man realized he was becoming easily exhausted, out of breath, and still hindered by the cough. Fever and symptoms worsened, and the doctor was admitted to St. Paul’s Hospital. On 29 September 1986, Jepson-Young was diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a rare form of pneumonia associated with AIDS. Calling his parents to the hospital, he finally told them that he was gay.
After surviving the pneumonia and two heart attacks, Jepson-Young slowly recovered and was able to return to work in November 1986. He first filled in for a fellow physician who had broken his leg, and then worked a series of locums as temporary physician replacement. Jepson-Young regained some of his strength and enjoyed a relatively normal life for three years.
However, in September of 1989 AIDS symptoms returned. It began with a viral eye infection. A healthy immune system would quickly recover, but Jepson-Young’s could not overcome the virus. Within six weeks his right eye was blind and by September 1990, he was totally blind.
The Dr. Peter Diaries
Losing his vision meant Jepson-Young was unable to practice medicine. While looking for other ways to continue working, he was offered a five-part series on CBC in Vancouver that would run for a week on the Evening News. The short, intimate segments would put a human face on AIDS, break down barriers and enlighten viewers about the disease. As a physician, Jepson-Young had the professional credibility to clearly describe the progression of HIV/AIDS. Since he was the subject, Jepson-Young received no pay, per CBC policy.
Jepson-Young’s parents were concerned that their son would risk danger from negative responses, that there would be scandal, and that they would face embarrassment. The doctor pressed on with the series anyway, with the request that his surname be left out.
Working with CBC producer David Paperny, Jepson-Young taped the first of five parts of Peter’s Story—An AIDS Diary on 26 July 1990. Approximately three minutes each, the pieces aired during the week of 9 September 1990.From then on, Jepson-Young became known as Dr. Peter.
Positive and negative comments flowed into the CBC call-line. AIDS activists wondered who exactly this mystery man was. Some callers wanted a more activist tone; others were afraid of backlash against the gay community. At the end of the five AIDS Diaries episodes, CBC decided there were enough viewers in favour to make Jepson-Young’s segments a weekly feature. By the time of his death in 1992, he had recorded 111 episodes.
Legacy of Care
"If I have managed to reach out and educate people, to touch them and perhaps change their viewpoint about people with AIDS and gay people, then I think that will be my greatest contribution," Jepson-Young remarked in a segment of the Dr. Peter Diaries.
Over two years, engaged viewers watched as AIDS steadily reduced the doctor’s vigour. Surrounded by family, friends, and his partner, Andy Hiscox, 35-year-old Jepson-Young passed away on 15 November 1992. At the time of his death, the physician was recognized as the longest-surviving AIDS victim; most AIDS patients at the time survived only a few months after diagnosis.
Only weeks before his death, Jepson-Young established the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation to raise funds for “comfort care” for AIDS patients. In 1997, the Dr. Peter Centre Day Health Program began operating at St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. The following year, it opened a 10-bed residence at the hospital. The Centre, which relocated to a purpose-built facility in 2003, continues to provide both residential care and day health programs for those living with HIV/AIDS. As of 2017, twenty-five years after his death, his mother Shirley still volunteers at the centre.
The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, a compilation documentary, was released in 1993 and nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.