Scientist Turned Activist: How Mathilde Krim Made an Impact on the AIDS Epidemic

Mathilde Krim

Immunologist Mathilde Krim worked at the Sloan Kettering Institute from 1962 to the early 1980s before becoming a tireless AIDS activist. Photo credit: amfAR

Summary

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re remembering female scientists from MSK’s past who shook up cancer research. Read about Charlotte Friend and Ora Rosen.

In 1981, Mathilde Krim, an immunologist at the Sloan Kettering Institute, was exploring the role of naturally occurring immune proteins called interferons as a treatment for cancer. The sudden appearance of a mysterious immune deficiency syndrome affecting gay men and IV drug users led her to shift her life’s focus from cancer research to AIDS research and activism.

“It was totally mind-blowing for a scientist who thinks she knows something to realize that, here in the middle of New York in the 20th century, a new disease could occur,” Dr. Krim said later, reflecting on her career path.

In 1983, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF), the first private organization concerned with fostering and supporting AIDS research. Later, with Elizabeth Taylor, she founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), which still funds research today.

She had street cred as a scientist and celeb cred too, so she could capture the public's ear.
Kent Sepkowitz
Kent Sepkowitz Deputy Physician-in-Chief for Quality and Safety

Her second husband, Arthur, was chairman of United Artists and later Orion Pictures. The couple was friends with many people from the movie business and Hollywood. These connections would help in Dr. Krim’s quest to raise AIDS awareness.

“She had street cred as a scientist and celeb cred too, so she could capture the public’s ear,” recalls MSK infectious disease specialist Kent Sepkowitz, who witnessed firsthand the early days of the AIDS epidemic. “Without her, without Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, and the various Hollywood players, it might’ve been another five or ten years before the public paid attention to the crisis.”

For her work supporting AIDS research, Dr. Krim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. She died in 2018 at the age of 91.

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