This Day in Jewish History / A Future AIDS Warrior Enters the World

Shocked by the concentration camps, scientist Mathilde Krim worked with Irgun and later devoted her skills to eradicating a global plague.

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July 9, 1926, is the birthdate of Mathilde Krim, the Italian-born microbiologist who became one of earliest scientist-activists in the fight against AIDS in the United States during the 1980s.

Born Mathilde Galland in Como, Italy, to Elizabeth Rosa Krause, a Catholic from German-speaking Czechoslovakia, and Eugene Galland, a Calvinist from Geneva, Krim was brought up in a multi-cultural household whose members attended both Protestant and Catholic churches.

Eugene worked as an agronomist in Milan for the Italian government, but lost his job in 1932, when the Fascists banned foreigners from working for the state; the family moved back to Geneva, where the father took work as a municipal health official.

Mathilde Galland studied biology at the University of Geneva, earning her bachelor’s degree in genetics in 1948, and her Ph.D. five years later. While a graduate student, she experimented with the newly developed electron microscope, and was among the first to use the powerful tool to observe the double helix of DNA.

Two experiences she had during her early university years, neither of them connected to science, were of pivotal importance to Galland’s life. The first was the clerical job she had in the office of a lawyer named Jean Heyman. Heyman, a Jew, was involved in making applications to Swiss immigration authorities to bring in large numbers of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries. Most of them were refused.

The experience gave Galland an initial awareness of what was happening outside of neutral Switzerland during the war years. That awareness was intensified shortly after the end of the war when she saw a newsreel depicting the liberation of concentration camps. “I was shocked out of my wits,” she told Ms. Magazine in a 1986 interview. “I [cried] for a week afterward.”

In addition to her science studies, Galland began to take university courses about Judaism. She also became friendly with some of the Jews from pre-state Israel who were studying medicine at the University of Geneva.

One of them was the Bulgarian-born David Danon, who was a member of the Irgun (one of the pre-state militias that later was integrated into the Israel Defense Forces).

Galland volunteered her services to the organization. One of her missions was to travel through post-war southern France in search of caches of guns left over from the resistance, and to convince their owners to donate them to the Zionist cause. She would then clean up the arms and arrange for them to be smuggled to Palestine.

In 1948, after Mathilde had converted to Judaism, she and David Danon married – and her parents disowned her. The couple remained in Geneva while they both completed their studies, and they even collaborated on several scientific articles. Then in 1953, with an 18-month daughter in tow, they moved to Israel.

Shortly after their arrival in Israel, Mathilde and David separated. In the meantime, armed with her skills with the electron microscope, she had found work as a research assistant at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. She lived in a small apartment on campus, where she raised their daughter, Daphna, and found herself promoted several times in her work.

One of the papers she coauthored, working in the laboratory of the molecular biologist Leo Sachs, had to do with using amniotic fluid to identify a child’s sex before birth. This research helped lead to the use of amniocentesis as a general diagnostic test for genetic defects during pregnancy.

Sometime after her divorce, Galland had given a tour of the Weizmann campus to a visiting trustee from New York, Arthur B. Krim, a lawyer and the chairman of United Artists films (and later founding chair of Orion Pictures). The two fell in love and married, and after several years of trying to sustain a relationship across two continents, she moved to the United States. There, after several months as a socialite wife, during which she was “bored to tears,” she later said, Mathilde began working as a researcher at Cornell Medical College, and then, in 1962, at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research.

Arthur Krim later became the finance chairman of the Democratic Party and was a confidant of Lyndon B. Johnson when he was president. Mathilde was an overnight guest at the White House when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, and remained there for the duration of the war, giving frequent advice to the president from the Israeli point of view .

At Sloan-Kettering, Mathilde Krim, as she was now known, became involved in developing the potential of interferon, a natural protein with immunity properties, as a cancer drug. Although interferon did not live up to expectations in cancer treatment, Krim’s work on immunity issues led to a critical series of conversations with two of her colleagues. Both men had recently treated a number of patients with catastrophic failures of their immune systems, who had also developed a very rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma. What set off alarm bells was that nearly all of these patients were gay men.

Krim brought the two colleagues, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and Dr. Bijan Safai, together, and the connections they made helped in identifying and understanding the “new” medical challenge that was – and continues to be – AIDS.

Krim quickly became involved in the fight against AIDS as a political activist. In 1983, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation with $100,000 of her husband’s money. The group later merged with a similar West Coast organization to become the American Foundation for AIDS Research, on whose board she still serves.

The foundation gave her an opportunity to bring together her scientific understanding with her social and political connections, to raise funds and political and public awareness of AIDS. She also was highly outspoken in her efforts to fight anti-gay prejudices and to convince the medical and political establishments to provide resources to the cause, despite those prejudices.

Krim’s work made her a high-profile figure and brought her into not a few public controversies. But it also gave her the privilege to have influence in a number of different areas in advancing AIDS research, vastly improving treatment of the disorder (particularly with the use of antiviral drugs both in the U.S. and abroad), and in helping to fight the dangerous stereotypes that accompanied early reactions to the spread of AIDS.

For her efforts, Krim received the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, in 2002, among many other awards and honorary degrees.

Krim, 87 (her husband died in 1994, at age 84), was present at the premiere screening of the film “The Battle of amfAR,” about the history of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, this past April at the Tribeca Film Festival (it will air on HBO in December). When she was asked if the seemingly never-ending battle against AIDS ever made her lose hope, she replied, “I’ve never felt like throwing in the towel,” adding that from “ the very beginning, my feelings, my anxieties, my hopes [were] the same as they are today.”

Mathilde Krim in 2010.Credit: Bloomberg

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