Mathilde Krim, scientist-cum-crusader against AIDS stigma dies

Doctor Mathilde Krim, founding chairman of amfAR, addresses diplomats gathered in the UN General Assembly...
Doctor Mathilde Krim, founding chairman of amfAR, addresses diplomats gathered in the UN General Assembly Reuter

Geneticist and virologist Mathilde Krim, who stripped AIDS of stigma and turned its treatment into a national cause, breathed her last on Jan 15 at her home in Kings Point, New York.

Mathilde was 91 when she passed away. Her death was announced by amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, where she served as founding chairman.

She was born in Como, Italy, on July 9, 1926, and raised in Geneva. Mathilde was popularly known as the "Interferon Queen" for her single-minded research into the protein's medical potential. She eventually moved to the field of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and found that it is spread by a virus, HIV. She worked rigorously to break a broad misconception that it only affects people of certain sexual orientation such as gays or lesbians.

With a US$100,000 donation from her husband Arthur Krim, she co-founded the AIDS Medical Foundation in New York in 1983. The organization merged with a California-based group two years later to form amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It adopted its current name in 2005 after becoming popular worldwide.

She remained active with the organization until her retirement in 2004. By this time AIDS in America captured everyone's attention and the discovery of better treatment options towards the same was on process.

Mathilde spearheaded legislation that increased federal funding for research into the disease, sought for expanded access to experimental drugs and promoted the use of condoms and new needles in an effort to limit the disease's spread

"She saw that AIDS would demand the intellectual resources of the fields of medicine, basic science and public health," wrote the late Allan Rosenfield, a women's health advocate and dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

She also enlisted a group of celebrities who helped make AIDS a popular cause across the country. She worked with popular actors like Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers, and organized gala events and fundraisers.

Since 2005 AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 48 percent. However, according to the United Nations advocacy programme UNAIDS, the disease still remains a pandemic. In 2016, the organization reported that among 36.7 million people living with HIV almost one million people died of AIDS.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in genetics from the University of Geneva in 1948 and received a doctorate from the school in 1953. She was so moved by a newsreel footage of the 1945 liberation of Nazi death camps, she ended up working as a volunteer with the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group, smuggling weapons on bike rides across the France-Switzerland border.

Her survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Daphna Krim of Bethesda, Maryland and two grandchildren.