Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Alvin Novick, a nationally prominent expert on HIV and AIDS, died Sunday at the age of 79 at University Health Services. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer over winter recess, after teaching a last semester of his popular undergraduate class “AIDS and Society.”

Friends and colleagues remember Novick for his work as a courageous activist and leader, fighting for gay rights and promoting AIDS and HIV awareness and prevention at Yale, in New Haven and across the country.

Novick helped found AIDS Project New Haven, the New Haven Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS, the New Haven Needle Exchange Program and was involved in essentially all other HIV and AIDS programs in New Haven. He also served on the FDA’s Anti-Viral Drugs Advisory Committee and various U.S. Public Health Service Advisory committees.

A friend of Novick for four decades, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department chair Stephen Stearns said Novick’s impact on Yale and New Haven has been immeasurable. Novick incorporated his passion for fighting HIV/AIDS into both his personal and professional life, taking a number of individuals with HIV into his home, fighting for the rights of and sufficient health care for those with AIDS, as well as creating his “AIDS and Society” class, Stearns said.

“Al was one of the most courageous, graceful and thoughtful people I have ever met in my life,” Stearns said. “He saved lives and careers … and was one of the most interesting people at Yale. Al really stood out for moral courage.”

Novick fought as a rifleman in World War II and was captured and held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He attended Harvard for medical and graduate school and spent years researching bat sonar systems before coming to Yale in the 1950s. When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the early 1980s, Novick shifted his focus from laboratory research to social activism, studying the legal, ethical, public policy and community aspects of AIDS and HIV.

Part of his interest in the problem of AIDS came about when his best friend became ill with the disease. In a 1999 interview with the News, Novick described his initial fear of the disease when he met the friend in the hospital.

“I was scared out of my mind but I went in there and held him and then all the fear went away and I have never been scared again,” Novick said.

In addition to working on several New Haven programs, Novick spent years as director of the Law, Policy and Ethics Core of Yale’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS.

CIRA Director Michael Merson said Novick was both a personal and professional inspiration when the center was founded in 1995.

“He was an enormous inspiration to me,” Merson said. “He was one of very few people with the courage to take on such a difficult issue at a time that Yale, New Haven and many other parts of America were not handling the epidemic well. What we’re doing at CIRA is a legacy to the courage he inspired. He never lost his passion for fighting for vulnerable people and is one of New Haven’s greatest heros.”

Another close friend of Novick, public health professor Edward Kaplan, designed the evaluation study of the needle exchange program Novick helped pioneer and said Novick was a pivotal influence in his life.

“He was a major figure, and his death is a huge loss to Yale and New Haven,” Kaplan said. “He was a wonderful and very wise man. It didn’t matter the issue — from something as serious as implementing a needle exchange … to something as lighthearted as judging a dog show, Al always had a fair eye for making ethical decisions.”

Kaplan said Novick educated New Haven residents about AIDS and HIV prevention and lobbied passionately for legislation in support of the needle exchange program.

Brett Rosenthal ’07, a student in last year’s “AIDS and Society” class, said Novick was a very candid and powerful lecturer who often discussed his personal experiences about coming out as a homosexual and dealing with the illnesses of close friends with AIDS.

“You could hear a pin drop in the room during his lecturers,” Rosenthal said. “He didn’t just teach material, because it was all always very personal to him. You could tell he really cared about what he was talking about.”

No information about a memorial service was available at press time.