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Vol. LXI, No. 22
October 30, 2009
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Kirschstein, Campus Icon, Mourned

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, shown here at the June 2002 meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director, had many roles in more than 50 years at NIH.
Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, shown here at the June 2002 meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director, had many roles in more than 50 years at NIH.

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, 82, a campus icon for more than half a century who was most recently a senior adviser to the NIH director, died Oct. 6 at the Clinical Center, where she had been treated for multiple myeloma. The first woman to direct an NIH institute, she was also a formidable administrator who served terms as both NIH deputy director and acting director.

“Ruth embodied the spirit of the NIH,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “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.”

A Brooklyn native, Kirschstein “wanted to be a doctor from a very young age—even before I went to high school,” she explained to oral historians at NLM some years ago. “I’m not sure exactly what motivated me. I had a father who was a chemist. I had a mother who was extremely ill through most of my childhood, and spent a long time in the hospital. That [may have] motivated me partly as well.”

She received a B.A. degree magna cum laude in 1947 from Long Island University and went on to earn her M.D. in 1951 from Tulane University School of Medicine. She interned in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, and did residencies in pathology at Providence Hospital, Detroit; Tulane; and the Clinical Center.

From 1957 to 1972, Kirschstein worked in experimental pathology at the Division of Biologics Standards (now the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, FDA). During that time, she helped develop and refine tests to assure the safety of viral vaccines for such diseases as polio, measles and rubella. Her work on polio led to selection of the Sabin vaccine for public use.

In 1972, Kirschstein became assistant director of the Division of Biologics Standards. That same year, when the division was transferred to FDA as a bureau, she was appointed deputy director. She subsequently served as FDA’s deputy associate commissioner for science.

In 1974, she became director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a post she held for nearly 20 years. From September 1990 to September 1991, she also served as NIH acting associate director for research on women’s health.

Kirschstein served two stints as acting NIH director: from July to November 1993 and from January until May 2002. She also was twice NIH deputy director: from November 1993 to December 1999 and from June 2002 until Feb. 8, 2003.

“Dr. Kirschstein was a great friend, mentor and role model for me and many others on the NIH campus and throughout the government,” said NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz. “As opposed to some whose positions bring them distinction, she brought distinction to the many positions that she held at the FDA and at the NIH. Her leadership in initiating critical training programs, as well as the extramural loan repayment programs, will continue to have a major impact on the future of biomedical research for years to come. Her pioneering commitment to the advancement of women and minorities in science was unwavering and is the basis of many of our current initiatives. Dr. Kirschstein leaves an immense legacy at the NIH and throughout the health research community, and I will miss her tremendously.”

NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox noted, “It is difficult for me to imagine an NIH without Dr. Kirschstein. Over more than a half century, first at the FDA and then on the NIH campus, she guided many people, touched many more and made several important scientific contributions. Through the lives she touched, her presence here will be felt for generations.”

She continued, “Dr. Kirschstein was my mentor, my adviser and most of all, my friend. She was a transformational figure within the medical research community: a remarkably effective scientist, a top-notch administrator admired by advocates and Congress alike. For many of us, Dr. K, as she was fondly called, was bigger than life. Her passion for NIH and its many employees was always evident, from those she tutored to become leaders to those she encouraged by her recognition of them in the halls or on the grounds. She served as a wise counselor for so many people who knew her, and even some who didn’t know her. She had a tremendous intellect, enormous courage and she devoted her talents to conducting medical research and mentoring legions of scientists who now follow in her footsteps. Dr. Ruth Lillian Kirschstein will be remembered as NIH’s greatest champion, and my great friend.”

Kirschstein received many honors and awards, including election to the Institute of Medicine and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and honorary degrees from six institutions. In 2002, the National Research Service Award Program was renamed in her honor as a tribute to her years of exceptional service to the nation.

She is survived by her husband, Dr. Alan Rabson, a deputy director at NCI, and a son, Dr. Arnold Rabson, a molecular geneticist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Collins said there will be 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.” NIHRecord Icon

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