Dr. Mathilde Krim, at amfAR'S New York Gala on Feb....

Dr. Mathilde Krim, at amfAR'S New York Gala on Feb. 9, 2011. Credit: AP / Evan Agostini

Whenever Dr. Mathilde Krim addressed scientific meetings, the room would become instantly silent — coughing and throat-clearing would stop, no one exited early.

Her soft, but determined voice commanded attention. Her words were sprinkled with hints of the five languages she fluently spoke. With a doctorate in biology, Krim, an immunologist and geneticist, wrote reams of research papers on a class of minuscule proteins called the interleukins, key components in the immune response.

Years ago scientists, including Krim, thought that manipulating interleukins might produce a cure for cancer. It didn’t.

But while that failed to pan out, a new talent emerged in the 1980s when she was in her 50s — fighting the stigma that would soon confront people with AIDS.

Krim, a resident of Kings Point, died at her home last week at the age of 91. But she blazed a long and memorable trail as a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 23 years and as co-founder in 1983 of amfAR, an AIDS research foundation. Both institutions are in Manhattan.

“Dr. Krim was a cancer researcher who did pioneering work on interleukin,” said Kevin Robert Frost, amFAR’s chief executive.

She became a major figure in fighting the worldwide pandemic spawned by the human immunodeficiency virus, a role that began almost by happenstance at the very beginning of the outbreak, Frost said.

While at Sloan-Kettering, Krim unexpectedly saw a colleague one day who told her about a mounting number of young gay men who were sick with a mystifying condition.

“She was intrigued by these cases,” Frost continued. “She knew we were confronted with an infectious agent that could be spread person to person and she understood that we had never seen that agent before.”

Krim’s chance meeting led to a series of deep discussions. She and a growing number of colleagues knew it was time to brace for a novel pathogen. They were not alone, however, in that early recognition.

At the same time on the West Coast, doctors were seeing similar cases.

Dr. Michael Gottlieb, an immunologist in Los Angeles, would be the first to publish on the new disease in a scientific article that appeared in the June 5, 1981, edition of Morbidity and Mortality Report. The case studies centered on five Los Angeles patients.

Gottlieb’s observations were just the tip of the iceberg as cases began emerging exponentially nationwide. As the number of cases grew, affecting not only gay men, but people who relied on the blood supply, especially hemophiliacs in need of clotting factors, Krim began seeing the emerging disease not so much for its scientific puzzles but for the prejudice it produced.

“The thread that connects each chapter in her life wasn’t the science but the human rights causes,” Frost said.

Krim, who was born in Italy on July 9, 1926, grew up in Switzerland. She was a teenager when she learned about the Nazis and was horrified by the concentration camps they created.

By 1945 when the war came to a close, she joined the Zionist underground movement and helped smuggle guns to resistance fighters battling British authority in Palestine. Later, she became an “early supporter of Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid in South Africa,” Frost said.

There should be little surprise, he added, that she would take on the enormous human rights issues emerging in the AIDS pandemic.

Through amfAR, Krim raised millions of dollars for AIDS research. And among her dozens of honors is a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Bill Clinton.

Last summer she told the online publication Infinite Fire that she would never abandon people with HIV.

“I’m an old lady now,” Krim told the website. “Sometimes I look out on my garden and think maybe I should stop and spend some time on the flowers. But I look and see the destruction AIDS has caused the young vital people . . . and I know I cannot stop.”

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