Memorial For U-District Needle Exchange Founder

Dec 13, 2012

A public memorial service is planned Thursday for Bob Quinn. Quinn was a public health maverick. He died last month.

Bob Quinn came to the University District from Canada in the late 1980s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Heroin use was on the rise and dirty needles were a source of transmission.

In 1989 Quinn decided to do something about it. He planted himself in front of Tower Records and, without a permit, started exchanging used needles for clean ones. 

Leroy Fulwiler remembers Quinn from those early days. “I would see this sort of shaggy-haired guy out in front of Tower Records and I didn’t really have a concept of what he was doing at the time," he said.

Needle exchange was an idea that was just taking shape. The first established program had been permitted only a year earlier in Tacoma. Fulwiler said Quinn dedicated himself to a group of people that many choose to ignore.

“A lot of us want to change the world want to do something positive for the world. And we come up with grand schemes and immediately start cataloging the reasons why it will never happen," Fulwiler said. "He just saw things that needed to be done and started doing it.”

University of Washington School of Public Health researcher Caleb Banta-Green said Quinn played a critical role in HIV prevention by maintaining relationships with the people he served. “He was a man of the streets and a man on the streets," Banta-Green said. "You know when a person needs something, when they’re ready to make a healthy change in their life, they have that personal connection with that person to do that."

The needle exchange moved off the Ave to an alley behind the U-District post office. It’s was a less visible location, and that never sat right with Quinn. He resigned from the exchange in 1998, but remained an advisor. It’s now run by the nonprofit group The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance

PHRA director Shilo Murphy considered Quinn his mentor. He said many people in the U-District knew Quinn as the bushy-haired dog walker with a warm smile. Quinn's Sheltie, Harris, died about three years ago. Murphy said Quinn was devastated. “Harris had quite a big memorial," he said. "There were more people in the neighborhood who had a personal connection to Harris than to Bob."

Quinn could often be seen walking other people's dogs after that. Still, he always draped Harris’s leash around his shoulders.

Many people say Harris’s death started the emotional spiral the resulted in Quinn’s suicide in November. He was 54.

But his legacy sustains. There are now five needle exchange programs in King County. Public Health - Seattle & King County says the programs are on track to exchange 5.4 million needles by the end of the year.