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Diabetes Dateline
Winter 2011

NIH Pays Tribute to the First Woman Appointed Director of an NIH Institute, Ruth L. Kirschstein

Photo of former National Institute of General Medical Sciences Director Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D.Current and former National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists and staff, as well as members of Congress, honored Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D., the first woman appointed director of an NIH Institute, for the positive impact she made as a leader in the scientific community.

“Ruth embodied the spirit of NIH. She was an icon. She was loved and admired by so many at the NIH, across the medical research community, among hundreds of members of Congress, and around the world. There are few at the NIH who have not been touched by her warmth, wisdom, interest, and mentorship,” said Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH.

Kirschstein, who passed away in 2009, was honored in 2010 with a tribute and symposium in her honor that featured four sessions with 11 featured speakers and ended with a reception. Scientists and researchers who received funds
from the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award presented the sessions. The awards have supported the work of thousands of researchers, and the quality of their research has elevated the program to the ranks of Fulbright Awards and Rhodes Scholarships.

As the first woman director of an NIH Institute—the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)—Kirschstein was known for mentoring young researchers, especially women and minorities. In 1993, Kirschstein became acting director of the NIH, and then served as the deputy director under NIH Director Harold Varmus for the next 6 years. She was acting director again from 2000 to 2002.

A Brooklyn native, Kirschstein wanted to be a doctor from a young age and fulfilled her dream after graduating magna cum laude in 1947 from Long Island University. She then went to Tulane University School of Medicine, where she was one of 10 women in a class of 100 men.

She interned in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and completed residencies in pathology in Detroit, New Orleans, and the then new NIH Clinical Center. In 1957, Kirschstein joined the Federal Government, beginning a 15-year stint as an experimental pathologist at the NIH Division of Biologics Standards, now known as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

In her first major accomplishment as a scientist, Kirschstein led the development of a safety test for the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, her work led to widespread adoption of the Sabin oral vaccine, especially in developing countries. Kirschstein continued to develop tests for the safety of vaccines for other diseases, including measles.

In 1974, after 2 years with the FDA, Kirschstein was appointed director of the NIGMS, a post she held for nearly 20 years. One of her most significant accomplishments as NIGMS director was her dedication to funding HIV/AIDS research and helping to establish the Genbank nucleic acid sequence database, which has been a critical tool for biomedical research. She championed myriad programs in basic biomedical research and research training that have helped to transform biomedical research.

“Ruth Kirschstein was a legendary scientist and administrator . . . a pioneer . . . a champion for the advancement of women and minorities in biomedical research . . . a strong advocate for research training, especially interdisciplinary predoctoral programs,” said U.S. Representative David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Kirschstein remained active at the NIH in her later years as a senior adviser; she was on a conference call with NIH Director Collins a week before her death. Kirschstein embodied the spirit of the NIH and was responsible for the career development of innumerable scientists and administrators.

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NIH Publication No. 11–4562
January 2011

Page last updated: December 5, 2011

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