Dr. Mathilde Krim
July 9, 1926–January 15, 2018
by Hank Trout
If you are one of the 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV, you probably owe your life at least in part to Dr. Mathilde Krim.
Like me. I am certain that I would not be alive today without the work of Dr. Krim, one of the most courageous pioneers of research into HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Krim died on Monday, January 15, 2018, at age ninety-one. The cause of death has not, as of this writing, been specified.
In the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, Dr. Mathilde Krim, a research scientist at the fabled Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and, from 1981 to 1985, the director of Sloan-Kettering’s interferon lab, was among the very first scientists to realize and warn us that this nascent disease posed a threat not only to the world’s health but to our social and political structures as well. Her research has saved millions of lives; her courage and dedication have inspired a generation of activists and advocates.
Born in 1926 in Como, Italy, to a Swiss father and an Italian mother, Mathilde Galland earned her PhD in Biology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1953. While a student, she married David Danon, an Israeli man studying in Geneva; they relocated to Israel where, from 1953 to 1959, Dr. Krim conducted cancer research at the Weizmann Institute of Science where, among other achievements, she helped develop a method for determining the sex of a fetus. After she and Danon divorced, Dr. Krim moved to New York City and a research position at Cornell University Medical School. In 1958, she married Arthur Krim, a prominent entertainment industry attorney and, later, head of United Artists and the founder of Orion Pictures. Together the couple were very active in the civil rights movement and in Democratic Party politics, serving as advisers to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.
The roots of Dr. Krim’s activism extended deep into her young adulthood. According to a December 2015 article in Life Sciences Magazine, in 1944 when Krim first saw newsreels of Allied troops freeing Nazi concentration camps, “I was shocked out of my wits,” she said. “I cried for a week.” Krim asked her parents if they knew about the camps and other atrocities. “They said they were just stories, and that I shouldn’t take it so hard,” she recalled. “It was the shock of my life, really. I decided I was going to find out what had really happened.” She set out upon a study of Zionism and of “the Final Solution.” Despite protest from her Protestant father and her Catholic mother, Krim converted to Judaism and, with her husband Danon aided Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group, once going so far as to smuggle guns across the French-Swiss border for delivery to Palestine.
Thus, it should surprise no one that Krim brought a sense of moral indignation to the early AIDS crisis as well as her monumental scientific knowledge. From the beginning, Krim surmised, as she told the Los Angeles Times, “We were dealing with something that was incurable, lethal, and unpreventable, and seemed to be sexually transmitted.” As soon as the cause of AIDS was identified as a retrovirus, Krim recognized the potential for a devastating worldwide catastrophe.
Krim’s outrage at the Reagan Administration’s lack of concern about the epidemic (Reagan cut federal funding for research as part of his promise to balance the federal budget and otherwise ignored the growing epidemic) led her to seek research funding from private individuals. Instead of generosity, she met with fear and disapproval. Dr. Krim told A&U in a December 2001 interview with Dale Reynolds, “It took such a long time—around five years or so—before our government truly engaged in the fight against AIDS. There were many reasons for this….The political resistance to focusing attention on AIDS was due to homophobia, plain and simple.”
Key was combatting the notion that AIDS was a “gay disease.” Again from the A&U interview: “AIDS was first recognized in the gay community because largely middle-class urban gay men had the sophistication and the means to consult alert physicians. But we know now that AIDS had already shown up in heterosexuals as early as 1976, including women.” Of course, fighting the notion of a “gay disease” also meant fighting homophobia and irrational fear.
Reacting to the unconscionable discrimination faced by HIV-positive gay men, Krim used $100,000 of her own money to launch the AIDS Medical Foundation in April 1983. AMF’s purpose was to provide much-needed funds for researchers. Her extra-curricular activities threatened her position at Sloan Kettering (“I was told very clearly that I should tone down my visibility”); her own research suffered from inattention as a result. She decided that her contribution to public health would be “reaching out to people… who have the means to help.”
Reach out she did. In July 1985, after the AIDS-related death of her friend Rock Hudson, the legendary Elizabeth Taylor used her own money to establish the National AIDS Research Foundation. Later that year, Dr. Krim telephoned Ms. Taylor and invited her to join AMF’s board of directors. Taylor eagerly accepted, and in September 1985, the two organizations merged to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), with the dual mission of supporting biomedical and clinical research to fight the epidemic and engaging in social, legal, and economic advocacy on behalf of those affected by the epidemic. Ms. Taylor brought celebrity and international attention to the fight; Dr. Krim brought to it her fierce knowledge and a fiery, often confrontational determination.
Never one to shy away from controversial positions, Dr. Krim made enemies in the scientific community almost as often as she made headlines. In 1986, she railed against protocols in clinical trials of AZT, the first drug developed to treat AIDS, because control groups in the trials were receiving placebos. Krim condemned the use of placebos as disgraceful, unethical; she argued that in cases of fatal diseases such as AIDS, all willing patients should have access to new drugs even in their experimental stages. She also decried the staggering cost of manufacturing AZT.
As often as she stirred trouble in the scientific community, she assuaged disagreements by dispensing research grants. While federal funding for AIDS research remained scant and inadequate, amfAR provided support for research that many in government deemed too risky or, disgustingly, unnecessary. Since 1985, amfAR has invested more than $480 million and has awarded more than 3,300 grants to research teams worldwide. That research has led, among other achievements, to the development of the “cocktail” of antiretroviral medications that, since 1996, has saved an untold millions of lives, and other medications that helped prevent mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus.
In February 2014, amfAR launched its “Countdown to a Cure,” representing “the greatest expansion of research grant-making in amfAR’s 30-year history,” with a commitment of $100-million to develop the scientific basis for a cure by 2020. Such initiative, such hope would be impossible without Dr. Krim’s inspiration and example.
In 2000, President Clinton awarded Dr. Krim the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the U.S. bestows. She also was awarded sixteen honorary doctorates for her work, as well as a Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefitting the Disadvantages. Her impact on the lives of millions of people cannot be underestimated.
“Today the world lost one of the most important figures in the history of the fight against HIV/AIDS,” wrote newly elected New York City councilmember Corey Johnson, on Facebook. “As an HIV-positive man who has been living with the virus for over 13 years, I know that I would not be alive today without the efforts of Dr. Mathilde Krim.”
Echoing that sentiment, long-time activist and ACT UP veteran Peter Staley wrote, “My greatest AIDS hero died a few hours ago” and called her “[a] warrior against homophobia and AIDS-related stigma, dedicated defender of science and public health, and mother-figure and mentor to countless activists.”
We at A&U, along with the rest of the world, mourn her death and celebrate her incredible life.
And from this twenty-nine-year survivor of HIV whose life Dr. Krim probably saved, simply, Thank You.
For more information on amfAR and the incredible work spearheaded by Dr. Krim, log on to the Foundation for AIDS Research’s website: www.amfar.org.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.