Mathilde Krim is unique among philanthropists. She was able to combine her years of experience in medical research with her extraordinary skills as a fund-raiser to create and sustain AmFAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research), the preeminent national organization supporting research on AIDS and advocating public policies that respond to the needs of people with AIDS. In the year 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—for her “extraordinary compassion and commitment” to AIDS patients and research.
She was born in Como, Italy, on July 9, 1926, the first of Elizabeth Rosa Krause and Eugene Emmanuel Galland’s four children. Eugene Galland was the son of a Swiss Calvinist and an Italian Catholic; Elizabeth Krause was the daughter of Austrian Catholics who were then living in Czechoslovakia. At the time of his marriage, Eugene Galland had earned a Ph.D. and was working in Italy as an agronomist.
Mathilde (Galland) Krim was thus born into a multinational, multireligious family, with relatives who spoke French, German, and Italian, who lived in Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland, and who attended both Protestant and Catholic churches. When she was a small child, her parents moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where her father found employment as a municipal public health officer. This was not the kind of work for which his doctorate had prepared him, but Mussolini’s Italy had not been kind to him and he had felt obliged to leave.
Mathilde was educated in Geneva. Immediately after completing secondary school at the École Supérieure des Jeunes Filles, she entered the University of Geneva where, over her parents’ objections, she enrolled in the faculty of biology.
Early in her university career, she came to the attention of the noted invertebrate embryologist Émile Guyenot, who, impressed with her technical and experimental skill, invited her to be an assistant in his laboratory. In 1948, she was granted the License degree (the equivalent of a bachelor of science degree in the United States). She continued to work as an employee in Guyenot’s laboratory but independently undertook exceptionally difficult electron micrographical studies of the chromosomes of some of the organisms that interested Guyenot. For these latter studies she was awarded a Ph.D. in 1953.
Thus she became a member of the very tiny group of women with advanced degrees in science. From her vantage point, however, this accomplishment almost paled by comparison to the other extraordinary turn that her life had taken. During the war years, she had found a job as a part-time clerk in the office of a Jewish lawyer, Maître Jean Heyman. Assigned the task of carrying papers to various government offices, she became dimly aware that, for some reason, large numbers of Jews were trying desperately to get Swiss visas. In the spring of 1945, in a newsreel preceding a film she had gone to see, she found out the reason—a discovery, she says, that changed her life. Her parents did not sympathize with her passionate concern with the Holocaust and its victims. Somewhat apolitical, they had more or less assumed that Europe would be improved when the Axis was successful and were initially unwilling even to believe that the Holocaust had happened.
In the late 1940s, a small group of Palestinian Jews (as they were then called) began attending Geneva’s world-famous medical school, and Mathilde, to her parents’ dismay, became friendly with them. She began taking courses in the history of Judaism and also became involved in some of their underground gunrunning enterprises. In the summer of 1948, just a few months after the founding of the State of Israel, she married one of those medical students, David Danon. Danon was a member of the Irgun; his medical studies and his residence in Geneva were frequently interrupted by his political and military activities. Nonetheless, the couple managed, during those years, to coauthor several papers on electron micrography. Their daughter, Daphna, was born in Geneva in 1951. When Daphna was eighteen months old, their degrees finally completed, the Danons moved to Israel. Mathilde had converted to Judaism before her marriage, but in Israel it proved necessary for her to undergo the training, examinations, and ceremony again.
The marriage did not flourish in Israel, in part because Mathilde was not enthusiastic about the hard life of desert pioneering to which her husband was attracted. In 1953, because of her unusual skills in electron micrography, she had found a job as a research assistant at the newly founded Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. She was able to work and care for Daphna because, early on, the institute had created a child-care center for its employees. Within a year, Mathilde was promoted to junior scientist (and, subsequently, to research associate) and was living with her daughter in a small apartment on the grounds of the institute, having separated from her husband.
During her years at Weizmann, Mathilde worked in the laboratory headed by Leo Sachs; she coauthored, with Sachs and others, more than a dozen research papers. The very first of these research studies was the one for which Sachs’s laboratory is probably most famous: “The Diagnosis of Sex Before Birth Using Cells from the Amniotic Fluid.” This paper was rushed into print in order to establish priority for this fundamental discovery, which helped lay the foundation for the prenatal diagnostic technique called amniocentesis and the discipline called medical genetics. As a result of this work, Mathilde became an expert on the then new techniques of cell culturing. She also did some research on the viruses that cause some forms of cancer.
In 1957, she met Arthur Krim, a wealthy American, who was a trustee of the Weizmann Institute. They married a year later. At first, the Krims thought that they could manage to live apart (he in New York, she in Rehovot), but they soon realized that this arrangement was untenable. Mathilde Krim and her daughter moved to New York and to an entirely different world. At the time of their marriage, Arthur Krim was the president of United Artists, a leading film production studio. He was also involved in fund-raising for the Democratic Party and in numerous other philanthropic and policy-related activities. His wife fairly quickly became his partner.
These activities were not, however, sufficient to satisfy Krim’s restless intellect. Within a few months, she had found a job as part of a research team at Cornell Medical College in New York (and, subsequently, at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, also in New York), working on various cancer-inducing agents. In part because of her involvement in this research, Krim was appointed to the congressional advisory commission on the war against cancer. She soon became interested not in the agents that cause cancer but in the family of natural substances—the interferons—that were then thought to have great potential as cures for various cancers as well as for other diseases.
For a decade, between 1975 and 1985, Krim served either as the coleader or the leader of Sloan-Kettering’s research and clinical evaluation program on interferon. During those years, she published (with many coauthors) more than thirty scientific papers on interferon and also organized a series of international research workshops.
In 1983, Krim and her laboratory staff were asked to assist in the treatment of some Sloan-Kettering patients who were suffering with a rare skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, which was associated with a new immunological disease, AIDS. At that time, her laboratory work was beginning to wind down. Interferon therapies had not proved successful, and many of the young people trained in her laboratory had been hired away by the burgeoning biotechnology industries. Simultaneously, Krim became fascinated by AIDS research, sympathetic to those with the disease, and enraged by the dual difficulties involved in funding the research and aiding the victims.
In 1985, these sentiments—coupled with her extraordinary social and political network—inspired her to create a foundation dedicated to fund-raising for AIDS research and advocacy. Although she now holds an adjunct appointment as professor of public health at the Columbia University School of Public Health, most of Krim’s time and energy, since 1985, has been devoted to various fund-raising, supervisory, and lobbying activities, all directed either to finding a cure for the AIDS virus or to creating supportive public programs to help people with the disease. Since 1990, when the American Foundation for AIDS Research merged with a similar organization on the West Coast (created by Elizabeth Taylor), Krim has served as its founding cochair and chairperson of the board.
Mathilde Krim holds fourteen honorary degrees and is the recipient of numerous other honors. In addition to serving on the advisory commission on cancer (1970–1971), she was a member of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (1966–1969) and the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979–1981). Reflecting her various interests and concerns, she has also been an active member of the boards of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute, the National Biomedical Research Foundation, the Committee of 100 for National Health Insurance, the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the African-American Institute.
“The Diagnosis of Sex before Birth Using Cells from the Amniotic Fluid,” with L. Sachs et al. Bulletin of the Research Council of Israel 5B (1955): 137–138; “Electron Micrograph of a Chromosome of Triton,” with E. Guyenot, E. Kellenberger, and J. Weigle. Nature 165 (1950): 33; “Prenatal Diagnosis of Sex Using Cells from Amniotic Fluid,” with L. Sachs and D.M. Serr. Science 123 (1956): 548; “Towards Tumor Therapy with Interferons. Part I. Interferons: Production and Properties,” and Part 2. Interferons: In Vivo Effects.” Blood 55 (1980): 711–721, 875–884.
Friedman, Jeanette. “Dr. Mathilde Krim: Caring Heart.” Lifestyles (Summer 1995): 6–9; Krim. Mathilde. Interview by author, August 1996, and Typescript of biographical essay on Arthur Krim.
How to cite this page
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. "Mathilde Krim." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/krim-matilde>.