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Vol. LXII, No. 12
June 11, 2010
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Kirschstein Remembered at Tribute Symposium

On the front page...

The Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein tribute event May 17 at the Natcher Bldg. was a reunion of sorts, a bittersweet but jubilant meeting of friends brought together to remember and celebrate the life and work of an extraordinary woman.

Kirschstein’s list of accomplishments is long and varied, including work on the polio vaccine, advances in the health of women and minorities and increases in the NIH budget and the number of scientific opportunities extended to groups not well-represented in medical careers. She also served several tours in prominent leadership roles, including heading NIGMS for almost 20 years and twice piloting NIH as acting director.

Through it all, she was unfailingly humble, so much so that NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said she “would probably be vexed as to why we were making such a fuss today.”

Continued...


  Former Congressman Louis Stokes (D-OH) is one of several luminaries to pay tribute to the life of an NIH icon, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.  
  Former Congressman Louis Stokes (D-OH) is one of several luminaries to pay tribute to the life of an NIH icon, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.  
However, when remembering a person as important to NIH as Kirschstein, a little fuss proved to be in order. Collins announced to the audience that the auditorium where they sat had been renamed in her honor. The response was enthusiastic applause.

Speaking for the family, Dr. Arnold Rabson, son of Kirschstein and her husband Dr. Al Rabson, who sat in the front row, took the stage. His remarks proved that Kirschstein excelled not only in her professional life, but also in her personal one. She was not only an astounding researcher, but “an amazing wife and an amazing mother,” he said.

“She knew everyone and everything,” he continued. “All of you were her second family. I feel like I know all of you even if I haven’t met you.”

Rabson was followed by a veritable parade of political and scientific all-stars who had come to share their thoughts.

Unveiling a plaque honoring Dr. Ruth Kirschstein at a tribute symposium are (from l) NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox, Kirschstein’s son Dr. Arnold Rabson, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg. NCI deputy director Dr. Alan Rabson (seated), Kirschstein’s husband of 59 years, accepts a standing ovation at the event.

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Unveiling a plaque honoring Dr. Ruth Kirschstein at a tribute symposium are (from l) NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox, Kirschstein’s son Dr. Arnold Rabson, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg.

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NCI deputy director Dr. Alan Rabson (seated), Kirschstein’s husband of 59 years, accepts a standing ovation at the event.

Dr. Arnold Rabson Charlette Bronson U.S. Rep. David Obey
Kirschstein’s son Dr. Arnold Rabson (l), her longtime assistant Charlette Bronson and U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-WI) remember the late NIH icon.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, offered the insight that it was because of Kirschstein that his committee acted on firm scientific evidence instead of political pressure from individual health causes.

“Her calm contained those impulses,” he said. “She bowled you over with her humanity. She demonstrated the qualities not only of a great scientist, but of a great person.”

On hand for the tribute are (from l) Joyce Rudick of ORWH, Dr. J. Taylor Harden of NIA and former NIBIB acting director Dr. Donna Dean
Above, on hand for the tribute are (from l) Joyce Rudick of ORWH, Dr. J. Taylor Harden of NIA and former NIBIB acting director Dr. Donna Dean. Below, also returning to NIH to honor Kirschstein are (from l) former NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman, former U.S. Congresswoman Connie Morella (D-MD) and former U.S. Congressman John Porter (R-IL).
former NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman former U.S. Congresswoman Connie Morella (D-MD) former U.S. Congressman John Porter (R-IL)

HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr told a story of how Kirschstein had once fallen while giving a speech and broken her elbow. Following her speech, she went back to her office and proceeded to work one-handed until co-workers demanded she seek help.

“It only goes to prove that Ruth working at 50 percent was better than most of us working at 100 percent,” he said.

Former NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman said that when he arrived at the institute in 1975, he never imagined staying for 27 years.

“I stayed because of the passion and enthusiasm for basic science,” he said. “Not only am I describing the institute, I am describing her.”

Charlette Bronson, an administrative assistant to Kirschstein when Ruth served as acting NIH director, said she was always impressed with Kirschstein’s knack for teamwork. “Any woman married to one man for 59 years knows a lot about teamwork.”

Sophia Cleland of NIAMS discusses her poster with NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers.

Above:
Sophia Cleland of NIAMS discusses her poster with NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers.

Below:
NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow (l), co-chair of the symposium’s stem cell session, listens as Dr. Laurie Boyer of MIT talks about her research.

NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow (l), co-chair of the symposium’s stem cell session, listens as Dr. Laurie Boyer of MIT talks about her research.

Bronson reminded the audience that it was Kirschstein who was at the helm when the country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. With Dr. Yvonne Maddox at her side as deputy, Bronson said, the two women were unflappable.

“My girls took care of business and held it down,” she said.

Dr. Shirley Malcolm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science told the NIH community that, along with Kirschstein, the two of them did all they could to change the composition of the science community, encouraging and opening doors for women and minorities.

“She knew what it was to be a first and only,” Malcolm said. “She was a big deal, period.”

Wendy Wertheimer of the Office of AIDS Research took the podium to offer examples of what made her friend such a charming and beloved lady.

“Ruth loathed pretentiousness, materialism, hypocrisy, injustice, lazy thinking, bad writing, comma errors, prima donnas and drama queens,” she said. “She loved politics, classical music, modern art, movies, New York City, McNeil-Lehrer, silk scarves, tote bags, good chocolate and good gossip.”

But of her friend’s many accomplishments, Wertheimer said the greatest one was her marriage to Rabson. Together, the pair “instituted their own brand of health care reform,” offering skilled, insightful referrals on all manner of medical concerns.

“Ruth-and-Al is really just one word,” Wertheimer said. “Theirs was a love story.

“Individually and as an inseparable unit, Ruth and Al have been the beating heart and soul and conscience of this institution,” she said. “In return, Ruth asked for nothing—no fanfare, no fuss, no credit. Ruth blazed the trail and set the example. All she would ask of us now would be that we treasure this place and everyone in it, honor its history and get back to work.”

The daylong event, whose theme was “Inspiring the Best in Others,” continued with posters and presentations from some of the more than 60,000 young scientists who have received Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards. NIHRecord Icon

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