November 22, 2019

“She was the best of us”

Remembering Bonnie Mathieson: A champion of young scientists

Margaret M. McCluskey, Senior Advisor for HIV Vaccine Research at USAID


At the Annual Scientific Retreat in 2016 for the Duke Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology and Immunogen Design (CHAVI-ID), Bonnie Mathieson was invited to join its leader, Barton Haynes, and his guests, at his table for dinner. She politely declined and dashed over to sit at a table full of young investigators. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them all leaning in to hear what she had to say, while she listened intently to them. I reached for my phone, catching this photo of Bonnie at her best (see photo, below).

Immunization Bonnie with early-career investigators at a 2016 Duke CHAVI-ID retreat.

At the time, it seemed there would be countless opportunities for us all to hear Bonnie Mathieson’s wise perspectives on how an HIV vaccine could be achieved. But on January 8th, Bonnie Mathieson left us all, without notice, just a week into her retirement.

Just a month before that CHAVI-ID meeting, Bonnie and her beloved husband, Don, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Before their celebration, she had prepared a box of tiny pots filled with fragile cuttings from her wooded backyard, intended for my garden. She assured me: “These should be okay if you coax them a bit—just get them in the ground and give them some love.” On a small bit of paper, informed by her botany education in the early 1960s at the University of Illinois, she had written: Blue bugloss, Liatris spicate, Mertensia virginica, Anemone nemorosa. Every spring, my yard blooms with hearty flowers cultivated by Bonnie, reminding me of her special spirit always so filled with hope.

“This extraordinary woman was just about everything a person aspires to be: kind, intelligent, sensitive, focused, loving, loyal.”

Immunization Bonnie and colleagues at the 35th Annual Symposium on Nonhuman Primate Models for AIDS, August, 2017.

Bonnie also constantly cultivated young researchers, all the while sharing her vast knowledge, wisdom, and fabulous sense of humor. Over decades, she “seeded” the HIV vaccine field by encouraging young investigators and coaxing them to become independent. She gave them confidence that they would thrive just as she envisaged the struggling green cuttings she chose for my yard would one day be well-established, vibrant, and beautiful. The field of HIV vaccine research will surely continue to be enriched by what Bonnie thoughtfully propagated over more than three decades.

At the recent Keystone Symposium on HIV Vaccines, where Bonnie was sorely missed, we started a memory book so others could share their sentiments directly to Bonnie and her family. As these thoughts convey, she was a source of scientific savvy and inspiration to many. What follows are just a few of the entries reflecting on what Bonnie meant to the cadre of scientists involved in the quest for an HIV vaccine.