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Women Scientist Profiles

Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D.

Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D.

Ruth Kirschstein, M.D., was a fixture on the NIH campus for more than 50 years, guiding the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at pivotal turning points. She was well known for her determination, attention-to-detail, and mentoring, and has served as a role model for generations of female scientists. The first woman to head an Institute at the NIH, Dr. Kirschstein also served as acting director of the NIH twice.

Dr. Kirschstein received her medical degree at Tulane University in 1951 and was drawn to pathology during several residencies across the United States. Dr. Kirschstein was a meticulous scientist, a trait that served her well as a pathologist in the NIH’s Division of Biologic Standards (DBS), which was later transferred to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She joined the DBS in 1957—just a year after a faulty batch of the Salk polio vaccine infected 40,000 children in the U.S., paralyzing 50 and killing five.

Dr. Kirschstein developed an accurate and reliable method for testing the safety of the polio vaccine, ensuring a similar mistake never happened again. Dr. Kirschstein advocated for the Sabin oral polio vaccine and consulted with the World Health Organization on the international fight against polio. She was awarded the DHEW Superior Service Award for her lifesaving work in 1971.

In 1974 Dr. Kirschstein was appointed director of the NIGMS. In her nearly 20 years as director, Dr. Kirschstein transformed and expanded the Institute. NIGMS’ budget quadrupled during this time thanks in part to her eloquent and engaging testimony before congress.

Dr. Kirschstein championed many causes at NIGMS in the face of changing political tides and trends. She was a steadfast supporter of basic science and grants to train the next generation of scientists. She organized the NIGMS response to the AIDS epidemic. Amidst conservative opposition to spending federal money on AIDS research, she initiated a structural biology program to identify drug targets against HIV. Dr. Kirschstein was also central to the formation of GenBank, the first nucleotide databank, which was later transferred from NIGMS to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Having faced discrimination throughout her career, Dr. Kirschstein was a vocal advocate for social justice. She fought tirelessly to ensure that her minority colleagues had equal opportunities to advance in science. Concerned that the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program was not enough, Dr. Kirschstein crafted an innovative program in the 1970s to attract and prepare minority undergraduate students for careers in science and medicine. Later she visited disadvantaged schools in Washington, DC, to get students excited about science. Despite her own barriers, Dr. Kirschstein was undaunted: “It never occurred to me that I could not do anything I wanted,” Dr. Kirschstein noted of her career choice in her biography, released by the NIH as a free eBook

Dr. Kirschstein mentored countless researchers. Many of these researchers went on to leadership positions at the NIH and in science. “There are few at the NIH who have not been touched by her warmth, wisdom, interest, and mentorship," said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins in 2009 in a statement following her death at 83 from multiple myeloma.  In recognition of her commitment to training young scientists and her many accomplishments, Congress renamed the NIH graduate student fellowship program in her honor in 2002. Through this program, today, thousands of young scientists are able to pursue their passion and continue the legacy of Dr. Kirschstein.


This page last updated: March 8, 2016

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