With the death of biologist Mathilde Krim on Monday, at the age of 91 at her home in New York, the world lost a pioneering scientist, activist and fundraiser in AIDS research. She is being widely praised this week for her clarity, compassion and leadership.
Amid the panic, confusion and discrimination of the HIV epidemic’s earliest days, Krim stood out — using science and straight talk, in the 1980s and beyond, to dispel fear, stigma, and misinformation among politicians and the public.
“She has likely literally saved hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives because of what she did during the initial days and years of the epidemic,” says Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council. “Every single one of us living with HIV today who are on medicines, where now we can live and thrive — it’s because of people like Dr.Mathilde Krim.”
Born in Italy in 1926, Krim received her doctorate in biology from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She became a steadfast activist for human rights early on, lived in Israel for a time and moved to the United States in the late 50s.
She was studying viruses and cancer when the AIDS epidemic emerged in the early 1980s and was among the first scientists to raise funds for research to develop AIDS treatment, working with celebrities like actress Elizabeth Taylor and others. Krim was the founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (now called the Foundation for AIDS Research) and went on to raise millions of dollars to finance basic research, clinical trials of drugs and other treatments and AIDS awareness programs.
Colleagues say Krim had a knack for helping people talk about HIV/AIDS rationally.
“She did it in a very grandmotherly way but also in a very direct and honest way,” says Kevin Robert Frost, current CEO of the Foundation for AIDS Research. Krim facilitated much-needed public discussions of sex, drug use and homosexuality, Frost says.
“She was able to address all of those things and sweep aside the stigma and discrimination … in a way that I think very few people could have at the time,” he says.
While most lawmakers were silent, Frost says, discrimination against people with AIDS was rampant in housing, employment and even medical care. Krim fought for laws to ban such discrimination, campaigned for needle exchange programs to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users, and promoted public campaigns that advocated safe sex practices, such as condom use.
Long-time AIDS activist and author, Peter Staley, who was an early member of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international direct action advocacy group, calls Krim’s approach to public health groundbreaking.
“She recognized human nature for what it was — with all its faults and beautiful diversity — and she realized that using science and the traditional public health approach was the way to save lives,” says Staley. “You throw out the moralizing — the finger wagging — and you save lives. And she did this again and again and again, fighting HIV stigma and homophobia.”
Krim received 16 honorary doctorates; in 2000 President Bill Clinton presented her with the nation’s highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Frost remembers Krim with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that “a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Frost says he greatly mourns Krim’s passing, but it’s also a joy to remember somebody “who could devote themselves so completely to the people around them.”