At a time when there’s debate and even polarization about the role of science in determining our public policies, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the loss this week of a seminal AIDS researcher, activist and fundraiser — Dr. Mathilde Krim.
The co-founder of amFAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research), Dr. Krim died at the age of 91 this week. Her legacy was that of a most unusual triple threat: She easily bridged the worlds of science and public health; fundraising, Hollywood and activism; and pushing for changes to public policy in the halls of Washington, D.C.
For younger generations who live with HIV but manage it as more of a chronic condition, it’s possible to lose perspective on just how crucial Krim’s voice was in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Discrimination was frequent whether it came to health care, housing or the workplace. Stigma around HIV was enormous. So was fear and misperception about AIDS.
Krim, who was a geneticist and virologist, saw the need for attacking the stigma, speaking up on behalf of those who were discriminated against, changing public attitudes and using the power of science and public health to fight for better treatments. She co-founded amFAR to raise millions for research.
“She just felt compelled to help as she witnessed gay men dying and a government and a people ignoring it,” said Peter Staley, one of the early leaders in the ACT-UP movement. Staley became a friend and eventually joined amFAR’s board at Krim’s repeated urgings.
“She knew from the get-go that this had the potential to be a worldwide pandemic and that stigma was a big part of it,” Staley said. “For many of us, she was the mother of the movement.”
Dr. Krim was a regular guest on the NewsHour during the earliest years of the AIDS crisis. In several of her appearances, she made a plea to the public to see AIDS as a treatable disease and to stem the fear around it. In 1990, for example, she appeared on the program after President George H.W. Bush delivered a speech on AIDS. She was critical that President Bush did not propose enough funding to fight AIDS, but she noted a major shift in tone from President Reagan and appealed for more understanding and tolerance around the disease.
Her ability to synthesize science and the role of activism was essential, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Fauci’s institute at NIH was essentially the leading government center for facilitating research and trials into the drugs. At times, Fauci and Krim butted heads over treatment protocols and Krim pressured for trials without placebos for those suffering from AIDS. But, said Fauci, they agreed on the larger goals and she brought an important perspective.
“Mathilde was respected in the scientific community and she became allied with the activists,” Fauci said. “That gave a different kind of credibility to the activist movement. When I started to open the door to activists and have meetings with them, Mathilde was a big part of making that happen. We’d meet with (activists) like Mark Harrington, Peter Staley and Greg Gonsalves. Mathilde would take the train down with them from New York.”
“And then it was not only her scientific credibility,” Fauci recalled. “She got Hollywood involved. She was able to work with Elizabeth Taylor” to get amFAR started.
Krim’s commitment to speaking out against discrimination goes back to her formative years during the Holocaust, Staley said. When Krim was 18 years old and living in Geneva in 1945, she went to the movies and saw newsreel footage of a Nazi concentration camp that was liberated. She saw images of corpses and emaciated survivors and “her memory of that experience evolved into the maxims that defined her philosophy of life,” according to an obituary on amFAR’s website. She would join a Zionist movement during the war and smuggle guns across the Swiss-French border. She eventually converted to Judaism.
Some of those attitudes she first developed during the war were the ones that influenced her life’s work, Staley said.
“She was one of history’s greatest public health advocates,” he said. “You have to let the facts drive your activism. It was this belief in how public health deals with science — and how she divorced it from moralizing — that gave us so much power.”