Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D. (1926–2009)

"I have felt, and still feel, that there is no more worthy endeavor than to serve the country, its people, and the science which has given me so much joy.”

  • —Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein was the first woman at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to head an institute (the National Institute of General Medical Sciences [NIGMS]) and the first woman to serve as acting director of the NIH (in 1993 and again in 2000).

Ruth Kirschstein was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926. Her father’s family immigrated to the United States from a village near the borders of Poland and Russia when he was eight years old. Her father grew up to become a chemist who inspired in her an interest in science and a love of music. Her mother was a public school teacher. Ruth Kirschstein received her B.A. magna cum laude from Long Island University in 1947 and her M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1951. 

Kirschstein came to the NIH in 1955 with her husband, pathologist Dr. Alan Rabson. She researched cancer viruses early in her career and then live-virus vaccines for polio, measles, and rubella. In 1955, the year following a field trial that showed the Jonas Salk inactivated (killed) polio vaccine to be safe and effective, the NIH Division of Biologics Standards (DBS) licensed several firms to produce the vaccine. Cutter Laboratories accidentally released vaccine that retained live polio virus, resulting in 260 paralytic cases of the disease, a disaster that caused panic among parents and scientists alike.

In the following years, Dr. Kirschstein’s polio investigations paved the way for safer vaccines, both the killed vaccine and live, attenuated oral polio vaccine.  She and her colleagues shed light on the pathogenesis of the polio virus and developed a standardized test involving precise, experimental inoculation of vaccine matter. It served as the basis for the testing DBS conducted on every lot of polio vaccine manufactured as well as for the laboratories that produced the vaccine and others that needed to know the procedure from around the world.

Professional photo of Dr. Ruth Kirschstein with curled hair wearing a pearl necklace and a collared shirt

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein  National Library of Medicine 

Three scientists in a laboratory looking at bottles of solution. The man on the left is holding up a bottle, a woman and a man are seated to the right. All are wearing white lab coats.

Dr. Samuel Baron (left), Dr. Ruth Kirschstein (center), and unidentified man (right).  Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum
An authority on infectious neuropathology of monkeys, she received the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW) Superior Service Award in 1971 for her contributions in developing monkey safety tests to live viral vaccines and for research on viral oncogenesis.

In 1961, Kirschstein became chief of the Laboratory of Pathology in DBS. She was promoted to assistant director of DBS in 1972. When DBS moved administratively to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr. Kirschstein became the deputy director of what then became called the FDA Bureau of Biologics.

From 1974 until 1993, Kirschstein was the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)–the first woman to be an institute director at NIH. As director of NIGMS, she worked tirelessly to expand the ranks of women and minorities in science at NIH and elsewhere. She did so in response to the discrimination she had experienced as a Jewish person and a female scientist and the discrimination against Black people she had seen in her years at Tulane. She was one of 10 women in her medical school class of 110 at Tulane. When she was a pathologist at the NIH, she had to fight for her promotions, being turned down twice for a promotion to the GS-15 salary. Because she was a married woman, the men in administrative roles didn’t feel that she needed the raise since her husband also worked. Kirschstein did not give up and received the promotion on her third try. She also fought for promotions for minority lab technicians such as George Rusten. Kirschstein was a champion of minorities in the sciences throughout her career but especially when she led NIGMS. She received an award from the Association of Minority Health Professions Schools in 1988 at a ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia. She also received the Geraldine P. Woods Award in 2002 that acknowledged her leadership, dedication, and commitment to the research training of minorities while at the head of NIGMS and NIH.

In 1993, she became acting director of NIH, the first woman to fill this role. During her time as acting director, she helped arrange for the move of six of the incoming director Dr. Harold E. Varmus's staff from the University of California, San Francisco to labs at NIH, all while keeping it a secret that Varmus was President Clinton’s choice to serve as director. Kirschstein also responded to a Congressional request to review the NIH intramural research program and assembled a team of highly respected experts for this task, chaired by Dr. Gail Cassell and Dr. Paul Marks. Four months after she took on the role of acting director of the NIH, her task was complete. Kirschstein would then become deputy director of the NIH, working directly with Varmus. Under Varmus’s leadership, funding for the NIH increased dramatically; the years of the mid-to-late 1990s  became known as “the doubling” because the NIH's budget grew that much. Kirschstein knew that the NIH would have to demonstrate what they had accomplished with this investment, both to Congress and to the American public.

In January 2000, she once again became acting director when Varmus left NIH to become the president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. This time, Kirschstein was acting director from 2000 to 2002, and she had the opportunity to showcase many scientific and public health achievements of the NIH. For example, in March 2000, the NIH launched the first phase of a consumer friendly database, where people could research thousands of medical studies. The Human Genome Project, led by Dr. Francis Collins, produced a working draft of the DNA sequence of the human genome by June 2000. The Office of Research on Minority Health hosted a conference in 2000 where Kirschstein renewed her commitment to the value and need of diversity in science. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) was established in 2000 as well, the 27th independent component of the NIH.

The year 2001 would prove a more difficult for Kirschstein as acting director. President George W. Bush, early in his first term, announced that federal funds could be used to support stem cell research but only using those existing lines of human embryonic stem cells, and they had to meet certain criteria. The process of identifying existing stem cells was a long and tedious process, and as acting director of the NIH, Kirschstein had the task of explaining the news to the scientific community. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Kirschstein oversaw the establishment of a variety of security measures such as the installation of the Bethesda campus perimeter fence, enforcement of wearing ID badges, and a new surge in funding of counterterrorism research. From 2002 to 2009, Kirschstein served as a senior advisor to the NIH Director and during those years also served as the interim director of the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Kirschstein was the recipient of numerous awards and several honorary degrees during her illustrious career. Two of the awards that she was most proud of are highlighted on this page. In 1985, Dr. Kirschstein was presented the Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Executives, the highest rank a federal senior executive can receive. She and her husband visited the White House where she received the award from President Ronald Reagan. In 1993, Kirschstein received the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s Public Service Award. The quote at the top of this page is from her acceptance speech and summarizes her feelings about the honor.

Dr. Kirschstein worked in Building 29, Rooms 209, 512, and 516 during her time with DBS .

Dr. Kirschstein's Own Reflections


Image Gallery

a photo of the FDA Commissioner's Special Citation Award which is a gold coin with a wooden stand for it

FDA Commissioner’s Special Citation presented to members of a subcommittee of the FDA's Science Board. The subcommittee, of which Kirschstein was a member, provided recommendations to the FDA Science Board on appropriate criteria for determining the quality and mission relevance of FDA-sponsored laboratory investigation. Office of NIH History & Stetten Museum

a crystal vase that is the Geraldine P. Woods award won by Ruth Kirschstein

Geraldine P. Woods Award that Kirschstein received in 2002 at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. She was praised for her leadership, dedication, and commitment to the research training of minorities while at the head of NIGMS and NIH.  Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum

A female scientist, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, is seated in a white lab coat and looks through a bacteria colony counter.

A photo of Dr. Kirschstein looking through a bacteria colony counter. Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum