Meet Françoise Barre-Sinoussi
This month, our HerStory recipient is the scientist who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. Françoise Barre-Sinoussi was born in Paris, France, in July of 1947. As a young girl, she was fascinated by the workings of the natural world. She’d spend hours observing insect behavior on family vacations, and quickly realized that she was destined for a life in the natural sciences. Once grown and schooled, she joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris in the 1970s, and worked on retrovirus research. In 1996, she became the head of the Retrovirus Biology Unit (later called Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit). For all of her work and dedication, Barre-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize in 2008, along with the colleagues she discovered HIV with.
Françoise Barre-Sinoussi thought she’d have the typical life of a research scientist, specializing in retroviruses, doing the work, putting in the time. And that all would have created a wonderful life, full of good work on important diseases without a huge effect on her entire life. That is, until an infectious-disease specialist called the Pasteur Institute and asked her to look for a retrovirus in a new disease that had been wreaking havoc all over the world. This disease was AIDS, and her work on it would change her life forever.
Once she and her colleagues began working on the research into whether or not AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, that was it. She was forever inextricably linked to the disease. Discovering that AIDS was, indeed, caused by a retrovirus took a relatively short period of time, and since that discovery, Barre-Sinoussi has worked tirelessly with patients and doctors and other researchers to try to discover a treatment and pave the way for a potential cure for the disease. She spent time in San Francisco at the height of the US AIDS epidemic, holding the hands of AIDS patients as the disease took them further and further into illness. Over the years, she has befriended many AIDS patients and watched as they sickened and died. She threw her entire self into the study of the disease, and at points in her life, has told her loved ones that “I feel that I’m not my own personality any more. I look like a virus. My face is like HIV.”
In 1996, a therapy was introduced that completely changed the course of the AIDS epidemic. Not necessarily a cure, antiretroviral (or combination) therapy proved to be very effective in saving lives and curbing the effects of the disease. Although a huge relief, Barre-Sinoussi fell into a depression once this happened (as did many of her colleagues), as the relentless push against the virus finally lessened, and they were all left with a feeling of almost let-down. We are strange creatures, human beings; sometimes that which should give us the most joy opens our eyes to all we have lost, and we think that must have been what happened to Barre-Sinoussi: the weight of all of the lives lost to the disease pressed down relentlessly on her. She stepped away from the public eye for a while, and was able to find her way back to the good fight, once again working on a deeper understanding of the disease, and being a relentless advocate for those whose lives have been affected by the infection.
In reading about Francçoise Barre-Sinoussi, who is, to this day, intimately involved in fighting AIDS and advocating for those afflicted with HIV, we are once again touched to our very cores by these strong women in HerStory who have given so much of themselves to making the world a better place. For where would we be without them?
The colorway this month, inspired by the 1980s era, is called Prendre le Coeur (take heart). The colors are decidedly 1980’s Laura Ashley fabric and dresses, the message decidedly Francçoise Barre-Sinoussi. Take heart, everyone, for there are people like Françoise Barre-Sinoussi working tirelessly to make this world a better place.
—Lorajean, The Knitted Wit