Dr. Mathilde Krim, Dead at 91, Took Up the Fight Against AIDS When Few Cared

Dr. Mathilde Krim speaks at the U.N. headquarters on Nov. 26, 2013, in New York.
Dr. Mathilde Krim speaks at the U.N. headquarters on Nov. 26, 2013, in New York.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

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Dr. Mathilde Krim, one of the first and best advocates for those affected by AIDS, died in her New York home on Monday at the age of 91. Her loss will be deeply felt; as anyone in the activism or research community will tell you, she was a force to be reckoned with, and she had the accolades to show for it: She received 16 honorary doctorates, has a portrait by Annie Lebovitz hanging in the National Gallery, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.

Krim, a geneticist and virologist as well as an advocate, has a long history of notable contributions to science and social justice. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in 1953, she studied cytogenetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Six years later, she moved to New York with her second husband, Arthur Krim, and made a name for herself as a researcher of cancer-causing viruses. But in the early 1980s, her focus turned to a growing epidemic that almost no one else had yet sought to address.

Well before the federal government or the country as a whole recognized the threat posed by AIDS—indeed, less than a year after the 1982 paper in which the disease was first called by that name—Krim founded the AIDS Medical Foundation, the first privately funded AIDS research organization, which originally operated out of a storage room in her husband’s Manhattan office. The stigma at that time was overwhelming: A former staff member recalls that “The mail guy was scared to come up to our office because it said ‘AIDS’ on our envelopes [which often contained hate mail anyway],” and in a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Krim herself described how the foundation “was not allowed to list its full name in the lobby index in the Helmsley Building, at 230 Park Avenue, where it has its office. Instead … the listing is A.M. Foundation and the door says A.M.F.” Despite these obstacles, Krim remained undeterred.

“Mathilde Krim had a charmed life in many ways, and moved in circles that many of us would never imagine occupying, mingling with presidents and prime ministers, eminent scientists and movie stars, long before HIV/AIDS appeared in 1981,” said Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, now an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health. Arthur Krim was an influential New York lawyer and successful film executive, and the pair regularly hosted high-profile politicians and celebrities at their Manhattan townhouse, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter; she later partnered with Elizabeth Taylor to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR). For Gonsalves, that makes Krim’s immediate and unflinching advocacy for those affected by AIDS all the more incredible: “She didn’t need to do it; it wasn’t necessarily her friends who were dying, her community under siege. But she saw something terrible happening to people and decided to act. This is an example of the solidarity and compassion, courage and fortitude she demonstrated throughout her life that made her exceptional then and exceptional now.”

He experienced that compassion firsthand. “When I was a young AIDS activist with ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group—and then a college dropout—she ended up supporting my work and that of my colleagues, seeing something in us and our cause that others in power and with privilege didn’t initially recognize. She saw what needed to be done, understood that solutions didn’t necessarily come from the usual places,” he said—and while terms like “visionary” and “pioneer” might be thrown around too easily, in Krim’s case, they are “perfectly descriptive.”

Where many in the establishment were unable or unwilling to acknowledge the need to combat a disease widely (and falsely) considered a “gay cancer,” Krim didn’t hesitate. Her tireless efforts to raise both funds and awareness—she often worked 16 to 18 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week—produced material, invaluable results: Since 1985, her organization has invested nearly $500 million in research. In 1988, the executive director of New York’s Citizen Commission on AIDS told the LA Times that “Mathilde Krim has brought more people into AIDS than anyone I can think of.” And her legacy only grew from there.

Steffanie Strathdee, Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences at UC San Diego and a researcher who specializes in HIV prevention in marginalized populations, described Krim as “a champion for people living with HIV [who] showed us that it is possible to be both a scientist and an advocate, and in fact, that that is part of our duty.”

“I didn’t know her personally, but to me, that is all the more telling of her legacy,” said Strathdee. “She touched so many people through her leadership, advocacy and her rights-based approach to health.”

Gonsalves agreed with this sentiment. Perhaps most crucially in the current climate, just weeks after the remaining members of the president’s AIDS advisory council were summarily dismissed, she offered a model of persistence and solidarity at a time when both were vital. “She was unafraid to speak up throughout all of her life, to politicians, to fellow scientists, to the general public in defense of our rights, in defense of science and the public health, when it wasn’t easy to do.”

“I’ll miss her,” he said. “I miss her.”

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Alex is Slate’s science intern. He writes about biology, culture, LGBTQ issues, and where they intersect.