27 August 1946 – 8 July 2020
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, born Wong Yee Ching, was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist and a major figure in the discovery of HIV.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Wong-Staal excelled in science at school and became the first woman in her family to pursue a career outside of the home. At the age of 18, she westernised her name to become Flossie Wong before attending UCLA to study bacteriology.
Wong-Staal began working in the NCI lab of Robert Gallo in 1973 where her first big success was providing the definitive molecular evidence that human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) can cause cancer. This research sealed the case that human retroviruses can be carcinogenic, a stance long dismissed by the research community.
Rising to the rank of senior scientist in the 1980s, she was the first to clone HIV, a newly discovered retrovirus, and determine the function of its genes. This was a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. She also discovered molecular evidence of micro-variation in HIV, which led to the use of “drug cocktails” to manage AIDS.
The significance of Wong-Staal’s work led her to become the most-cited female scientist of the 1980s, with nearly 7,800 citations. She was inducted into the US National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019.