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Flossie Wong-Staal (1946–2020), pioneering HIV researcher

by Linnea Crowther

Flossie Wong-Staal was a molecular virologist whose research on HIV was crucial in the development of blood tests to detect the virus.

Groundbreaking research

A native of Hong Kong, Wong-Staal immigrated to the U.S. as a student and later began working with the National Institutes of Health. In the 1970s, as her career was on the rise, science and medical research were still largely controlled by men. Wong-Staal excelled as an early woman in the field and became the most cited woman in science of the 1980s. Among her achievements was discovering the first human retrovirus, HTLV-1, which causes diseases including lymphoma. Wong-Stall’s work with retroviruses led her to study HIV as the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1908s. She led the first team to clone HIV, a breakthrough that paved the way for HIV tests and the drug cocktails that allow people to live with HIV/AIDS. In later years, Wong-Staal led the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California-San Diego. She co-founded the pharmaceutical company Immusol, where she worked on hepatitis-C treatments.

Wong-Staal on researching HIV in the early 1980s

“[I]t was a new virus. But not only was it a new virus, it was a very interesting and complicated virus. That meant that there were a lot of discoveries to be made. …That time was a very productive period. It was dizzying, you know, because there was so much to do. You don’t even know what to do first. I would say that those years were the highlight of my career, that period of discovery, intense discovery. ” —from a 1997 oral history for the National Institutes of Health

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What people said about her

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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