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Belgian virologist and senator Lise Thiry dies at 102

06:45 24/01/2024

Tributes have been paid to Lise Thiry, a top Belgian virologist and former Belgian senator, who has died in Waterloo at the age of 102.

The Walloon scientist and politician was a leading figure in feminism, social medicine and aid to refugees and Aids victims.

Born in Liège on 5 February 1921, she was the daughter of Marcel Thiry, also a senator in addition to being a poet and writer.

It was her father who encouraged her to study science, and she graduated from the University of Liège in 1946, one of only three women doctors out of 140 students.

Lise Thiry then joined the Institut Pasteur, where she focused on virology and microbiology and eventually founded the virology department in 1952.

She also co-founded the study group for medical reform (GERM).

"We didn't yet have an office and we would meet at each other's homes in the evenings, which no doubt strengthened our solidarity, towards deep friendships,” Thiry recalled in 2015 in the medical home magazine, Santé Conjuguée.

"For example, I remember Maurice Goldstein, an Auschwitz survivor, standing next to Elie Vamos, whispering gentle revolutionary suggestions. And some decisions were soon taken, thanks to the dynamism and perseverance of cardiologist Henri Cleempoel.

"Underneath his British phlegm was an inner turmoil. It seems to me that he became my best friend. This was no doubt the case for many of us. We were soon joined by the gynaecologist Willy Peers, who brought his enthusiasm and courage."

Thiry then joined the University of Brussels as a professor where she worked on the rabies, poliomyelitis and genital herpes viruses, before developing an Aids screening test. She was later appointed president of the Scientific Council for the Prevention of Aids.

Alongside her scientific career, Lise Thiry was active in political parties. In 1973, she joined the Socialist Party, fighting in particular for the decriminalisation of abortion. She was elected senator in 1985 and named Woman of the Year.

“It caused quite a stir, for a few days,” Thiry later recalled. “My first concern was 'My God... But they'll think it's ridiculous at GERM! But on the evening of the GERM meeting, I entered the room and there they were... all applauding in unison.”

Thiry later became involved in the rights of illegal residents and wrote a book, ‘Conversations avec des clandestins’, in which she described the experiences of asylum seekers.

She is also the author of popular works on viruses, was made a Commander of the Walloon Order of Merit in 2011, and a building on the Erasmus campus of ULB has been named after her since 2019.

Photo: Lise Thiry receiving an award in 2006. Bruno Arnold/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons