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.”
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.