November 2009

Remembering Ruth L. Kirschstein

One of the truly great characteristics of a life well lived is knowing that one’s time on Earth has made a difference. In the case of Ruth L. Kirschstein, it is clear that hers did.

Kirschstein, a legendary scientist and administrator at the National Institutes of Health, died peacefully on Oct. 6 at the Clinical Center on the NIH campus that she loved and was a part of for so many years. Her husband, Al Rabson, and son, Arnold Rabson, both biomedical researchers, were at her side when she passed.

“With the passing of Ruth Kirschstein, science has lost one of its greatest champions for the advancement of women and minorities in biomedical research,” said American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology President Gregory A. Petsko. “Many of us knew Ruth as the first woman to head an NIH institute (National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 1974) and long admired her tireless efforts on behalf of diversity. It was sometimes easy to forget that she also made pioneering contributions to the development of safe vaccines against many of the scourges of the 20th century, including polio. She probably would ask for no more fitting a memorial than for others to continue to take up the causes that meant so much to her.”Kirschstein

Scientist and NIH Administrator

In the 1950s, the Salk vaccine for polio was blamed for causing more than 200 cases of the disease. Kirschstein led the search for a safer alternative and ended up advocating use of the Sabin oral vaccine, which eventually came into worldwide use. In 1971, she was given the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Superior Service Award in recognition of her work on the Sabin vaccine. Thanks to the vaccine, polio has been eradicated in the Unites States. In the 1980s, Kirschstein became a leader in the public health response to the emerging AIDS epidemic, organizing funding and mobilizing a team of NIH researchers.

Kirschstein graduated magna cum laude from Long Island University in 1947, earned her M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1951 and went on to an internship in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Kirschstein then focused on pathology, serving residencies at Providence Hospital in Detroit; Tulane University School of Medicine; and Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center at the NIH.

From 1957 to 1972, she worked as a researcher in experimental pathology at what is now the Food and Drug Administration, where she tested the safety of vaccines for polio, measles and rubella. She also did consulting work for the World Health Organization. She left the FDA in 1974 to join the staff at NIH, where she was appointed director of NIGMS.

She served in that capacity until 1993, when she became the NIH acting director, until Harold Varmus arrived that fall. She returned to the acting directorship when Varmus left and served from January 2000 to May 2003, which was when Elias Zerhouni took over. Congress recognized her service to NIH with the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, which provide funding for postdoctoral and predoctoral fellows.

Kirschstein received many honors and awards during her career, including ASBMB’s Howard K. Schachman Public Service Award in 2002. The award itself was an antique brass microscope, but, with the rectitude that characterized her approach to public service, she donated the microscope to the NIH for permanent display on the campus.

The garden in front of the Beaumont House, the ASBMB headquarters in Bethesda, Md., is named for her, and a large granite boulder with a bronze plaque dedicates the garden in her name. The plaque reads in part, “This garden commemorates the contributions of Ruth L. Kirschstein…[to] cultivating the careers of many trainees in the biomedical sciences and guiding the foremost biomedical institute in the world during a critical period.”

The following are a sampling of comments from Kirschstein’s friends and colleagues:

The loss of Dr. Kirschstein is felt throughout the research community. Her leadership and commitment to science and public service were inspirational, and she is sorely missed.

John Edward Porter


We were all very sad to learn of the death of Ruth Kirschstein. She will be deeply missed here at NIGMS, NIH and beyond.

Dr. Kirschstein truly represented the best of NIH: public service, wisdom and deep knowledge and analysis of important problems. She was so profoundly modest that Congress had to surprise her when they acknowledged her contributions and commitment to research training with the naming of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards.

Jeremy M. Berg


With her passing, we have lost a great scientist and an extraordinary public servant. Her distinguished career in public service spanned over five decades, and her legacy includes outstanding achievements in science and in public policy…Those of us fortunate enough to have known Ruth Kirschstein will always remember her for generously sharing her time and talent with those who needed help. She was a great leader who inspired thousands with her intelligence, commitment and compassion. FASEB will miss her, and we extend our sympathy to her family.

Mark O. Lively
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology


I’m particularly saddened by Ruth Kirschstein’s passing, since I had the privilege of serving on the advisory committee to the director of NIH while she was interim director, and it was during my ASBMB presidency that she received the Howard K. Schachman Award, of which she was immensely proud because of her association with Howard…She was, indeed, a pioneer in biomedical research, and it is fitting that the NRSA bear her name due to her contribution toward the establishment of fellowship training awards during her career as NIGMS director. She was sharp of wit and very active throughout her career, not even letting a bout with breast cancer slow her down.

Bettie Sue Siler Masters
Robert A. Welch distinguished professor in chemistry
University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, and
ASBMB past president


Dr. Ruth Kirschstein’s death is a tremendous loss to patients, researchers and all Americans who value medical research and NIH. The first woman to ever head an NIH institute, Dr. Kirschstein devoted her life to advancing medical progress, promoting diversity and scientific excellence, training future generations of scientists and serving as a mentor to scores of researchers and scientific administrators.

From her work on the Sabin vaccine to her many leadership positions at the NIH, she maintained a singular focus on scientific excellence, while demonstrating a steadfast devotion to public service. Dr. Kirschstein leaves a legacy that will continue to enrich the scientific enterprise and the health of the American people for generations to come.

On behalf of the leaders and faculty of the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals, I extend our deepest sympathies to Dr. Kirschstein’s devoted husband, Dr. Al Rabson; their son, Dr. Arnold Rabson; and other family members.

Darrell G. Kirch
President and CEO
Association of American Medical Colleges


Collins Reflects on Kirschstein

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins issued the following statement on the death of Ruth Kirschstein.

“Ruth embodied the spirit of the 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. Knowing Ruth, she would cringe if she heard us praise her — modesty was one of her strongest suits. Dr. Kirschstein couldn’t, however, argue with the facts about her service to the NIH that spanned more than 50 years. She was the first female director of an NIH institute, NIGMS. She was the deputy director of the NIH, acting NIH director and senior advisor to multiple NIH directors. There are few at the NIH who have not been touched by her warmth, wisdom, interest and mentorship.

“She worked diligently on breaking the mystery of polio and developing the Sabin vaccine. Her many other accomplishments are too numerous to list. We will have an opportunity for the NIH family to pay tribute, reflecting upon the life and lessons of one of our greatest leaders, according to her and her family’s wishes, at a future date.

“Ruth worked up to her last days. Last week, in fact, I was on a conference call with her, and her insightful contribution made it clear she had not missed a beat.

I know I speak for all of the NIH and our entire community when I say that the world has lost one of its dearest, most dedicated public servants, one with a huge heart and brilliant mind. We will miss her always.”

Peter F. Farnham is director of public affairs at ASBMB. He can be reached at

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