David Johnson Acer was born November 11, 1949 in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Ohio State University Dental School in March 1974. Acer then joined the U.S. Air Force, where he held the rank of captain and practiced dentistry while stationed in Germany. After his discharge he moved to Venice, Florida, where he remained for a year before moving to Miami.
Once arriving in Florida, Acer joined a dental group practice as an associate, where he quickly became a success in his field. That success led him to opening his own practice in Jensen Beach in the early 1980s. This too was a success, largely due to a high number of referrals he received from CIGNA Dental Health of Florida. The carrier covered hundreds of state employees and Martin County schoolteachers.
He was described by friends and colleagues as professional, but not very social in large group settings, most likely because of his closeted bisexuality for the sake of his career.
In 1985, Acer added an associate dentist, Dr. Elizabeth Greenhill. Greenhill told the Palm Beach Post that she had wanted him to autoclave his dental instruments, though he did routinely steam clean them. She told the paper that Acer did not make any extra effort towards the enforcement of universal precautions, despite CIGNA’s procedural manual for dentists covered this very subject, which included the use of masks and gloves while treating patients. Acer used neither, but this was overlooked by CIGNA’s dental director, who regularly visited Acer’s practice.
Acer believed he had contracted HIV in 1986 through a sexual contact, but did not exhibit any symptoms of AIDS. Meanwhile, his practice continued to grow, with him seeing close to 2,000 patients in 1987, clearing about $50,000 that year. That was also the year that Acer began to show visible symptoms of AIDS.
Acer saw Dr. Frank Gutierrez, his general practitioner, in September 1987 for treatment of a sore throat. Gutierrez, who knew of Acer’s lifestyle habits, warned him to practice safe sex. Acer then saw an oral surgeon who took a biopsy of the roof of his mouth and diagnosed Acer as having Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of AIDS-related cancer. Acer then confessed that he had likely had 150 different sexual partners in the past decade, and had not used a condom during his last sexual experience two months prior. He began taking AZT and getting treatment at the VA Medical Center.
In December 1987, Acer treated Kimberly Bergalis for two abscessed molars and continued to see other patients, well into 1988. With symptoms advancing, Acer’s work began to get sloppy, prompting other patients to take notice that he was reusing gloves and other disposable components, not sterilizing instruments, and taking shortcuts that put patient safety in jeopardy. Acer also began showing lesions on his skin, prompting him to wear long sleeves and buttoned collars, regardless of the weather.
By early 1989, Acer’s symptoms worsened, with frequent coughing, blurred vision and more lesions appearing on his skin. By summer, he had missed so much work that he could no longer keep it a secret and told his family of his illness after being hospitalized with pneumonia. Those who inquired about his health were told he had terminal cancer. He then put his practice up for sale, later selling it to Dr. Ben Emerson, who kept 20 of Acer’s patients and the reception room furniture. Almost everything else was thrown out.
In March 1990, Kim Bergalis was diagnosed with AIDS. Officials from the CDC office in Atlanta investigated Acer after learning of Bergalis’ medical history. Acer by this time, was housebound and receiving care from his parents, who had relocated from Pennsylvania to Florida. He told the CDC that since learning he had AIDS, he wore gloves and masks when treating patients. The CDC concluded on July 27, 1990 that based on epidemiologic and laboratory findings, it was possible that Acer transmitted the HIV virus from himself to Bergalis. Three days before his death, Acer ran an open letter in several newspapers that he had AIDS.
Acer was taken from his home on August 31, 1990, to live his final days at Hospice of Palm Beach County. Acer was suffering from hallucinations, a severe cough, and lesions in his mouth, and on his skin and lungs. His weight had dropped to 115 pounds from 175. On September 3, 1990, Acer died of complications arising from Kaposi’s sarcoma. He was later cremated. There was no memorial service.
Four days after Acer died, Bergalis’ family sued his estate for malpractice, and Kimberly had decided to go public with her story.