Spotlight on work of AIDS activist Mathilde Krim
Biologist Mathilde Krim recognized soon after the first cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981 that this new disease raised grave scientific and medical questions and that it might have important socio-political consequences. She dedicated herself to increasing the public's awareness of AIDS and to a better understanding of its cause, its modes of transmission, and its epidemiologic pattern.
Born in Como, Italy, on July 9, 1926, Krim was raised in Geneva, Switzerland, where she studied biology at the University of Geneva and earned a Ph.D. in 1953. At that time, she was one of a very small number of women with advanced degrees in science. It was also during her doctoral studies that Krim converted to Judaism, inspired in part by learning the truth about the Holocaust and in part by her association with Jews from Israel (then Palestine) who were studying at the University. In 1953, Krim moved with her husband and daughter to Israel, where she found a position at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. At Weizmann, she contributed to studies that laid the foundation for amniocentesis, became one of the first experts in culturing cells, and studied the viruses thought to cause some forms of cancer.
After a move to New York with her second husband in 1958, she joined the research faculty at Cornell Medical College and later at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. For many years, she was deeply involved in the study of interferons, natural substances that were considered promising for the treatment of cancer. Just as the study of interferons was falling out of favor, AIDS was becoming a major public health concern. Krim left full-time research and became involved in AIDS treatment and activism.
In 1983, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF), the first private organization concerned with fostering and supporting AIDS research. The new Foundation was profiled by the New York Times on June 24, 1983; the Times reported that the group had already won an endorsement from New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Krim was able to draw on her husband's contacts in Hollywood (he was chairman of Orion Pictures) and in the Democratic Party (he was the Party's finance chairman and an advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter) to win publicity and funds for her work. She was also joined by at least a dozen other New York City medical researchers, who hoped to use AMF funds to find both the causes of and effective treatments for AIDS. In 1990, AMF merged with a like-minded group based in California to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) that soon became the preeminent national nonprofit organization devoted to mobilizing the public's generosity in support of trail-blazing laboratory and clinical AIDS research, AIDS prevention, and the development of sound AIDS-related public policies. Krim is amfAR's Founding Chair and was, from 1990 through 2004, the chairman of its Board.
In addition, Krim now holds the academic appointment of Adjunct Professor of Health Policy and Management at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. She holds fifteen doctorates honoris causa and has received many other honors and distinctions. In August 2000 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 761-763; New York Times, June 24, 1983, November 3, 1984, February 14, 1988, January 30, 1990, May 27, 1991; www.amfar.org; www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2005/04/28f.html; www.aegis.com/news/ads/1990/AD901187.html.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Spotlight on work of AIDS activist Mathilde Krim." (Viewed on September 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/24/1983/mathilde-krim>.