Who Was Ruth L. Kirschstein, and Why Was the National Research Service Award Program Named After Her?

Ruth L. KirschsteinRuth L. Kirschstein was an icon at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with a scientific and administrative public service career that spanned more than half a century. After doing important laboratory work on the polio vaccine, she made history as the first woman to direct an NIH institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Later, she served as deputy director and acting director of NIH.

Kirschstein was a strong advocate for research training, especially interdisciplinary predoctoral programs and programs to increase the number of underrepresented biomedical scientists, physician-scientists, and scientists trained in emerging or evolving areas. She also personally mentored a significant number of people within and outside NIH.

In 2002, as a fitting tribute to her many years of exceptional service to the nation, particularly in the area of research training, Congress renamed the National Research Service Award program in her honor.

Want to know more about her? Read on. . . .

After her death in October 2009, NIH leaders reflected on Ruth Kirschstein's impact:

"Ruth embodied the spirit of the NIH. 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."
--Francis S. Collins, director, National Institutes of Health

"Dr. Kirschstein was a great friend, mentor and role model for me and many others on the NIH campus and throughout the government. 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."
--Stephen Katz, director, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

"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. . . . 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."
--Yvonne Maddox, deputy director, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Kirschstein "wanted to be a doctor from a very young ageeven before I went to high school," she once told oral historians at the National Library of Medicine. "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 an M.D. in 1951 from Tulane University School of Medicine. She interned in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and did residencies in pathology at Providence Hospital in Detroit, Tulane and the NIH Clinical Center.

From 1957 to 1972, Kirschstein worked in experimental pathology at the NIH Division of Biologics Standards, which is now the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research of the Food and Drug Administration (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 the Sabin vaccine's selection for public use. The vaccine's impact was dramatic: It virtually eliminated a disease that only a few years earlier had stricken 37,000 people annually.

After rising to the position of deputy associate commissioner for science at FDA, Kirschstein became director of NIGMS in 1974. During her nearly two decades of leadership, NIGMS became known as the "basic research institute" of NIH and gained international recognition for its programs in a wide range of areas, including genetics, cell and molecular biology, biophysics, pharmacology and biochemistry. NIGMS is also considered the "training institute" by virtue of the number, breadth and forward-thinking features of its programs, which flourished under her direction.

Kirschstein played a leading role in many prominent committees and task forces focused on the NIH grants peer review system, pre- and postdoctoral training, increasing the number of women and underrepresented scientists in science and technology, and women's health issues.

Among her honors were election to the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award, the highest honor that can be given to a career civil servant; the Dr. Nathan Davis Award for Outstanding Government Service from the American Medical Association; and the Public Service Award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.