As director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences from 1974 to 1993, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein was the first woman institute director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Throughout her career, she has worked as an administrator, fundraiser, and scientific researcher, investigating possible public health responses in the midst of crisis and conservatism.
In the 1950s, the California Cutter Company's Salk vaccine for polio was blamed for causing more than two hundred cases of polio. Dr. Kirschstein led the search for a safer alternative, advocating the Sabin oral vaccine, which was then used worldwide. In 1971, for her work on promoting the Sabin vaccine, she was awarded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Superior Service Award. Thanks to the Sabin vaccine, polio has been eradicated in the United States, though it is still a significant health threat in other areas of the world. In the 1980s, Dr. Kirschstein was again a leader in the public health response to the emerging AIDS epidemic. Despite conservative opposition to spending money to investigate the disease and possible treatments, Dr. Kirschstein organized funding and mobilized a team of NIH researchers to take on the task.
Kirschstein graduated magna cum laude from Long Island University in 1947, earned her M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1951, and went on to an internship in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn. Dr. Kirschstein then focused on pathology, serving residencies at Providence Hospital, Detroit; Tulane University School of Medicine; and the Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health.
From 1957 to 1972, Dr. Kirschstein worked as a researcher in experimental pathology at the Division of Biologics Standards (now the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Food and Drug Administration), becoming chief of the Laboratory of Pathology in 1961. She tested the safety of vaccines for polio, measles, and rubella. The World Health Organization enlisted Dr. Kirschtein's help in 1965 as a member of their Expert Group on International Requirements for Biological Substances, and in 1967 as a consultant on the use of the live poliovirus oral vaccine. In 1972, she was made assistant director of the Division of Biologics Standards, and was appointed deputy director when the division became a bureau of the Food and Drug Administration later that year.
As Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in the early days of AIDS she was very supportive of AIDS research, and launched a structural biology program that was highly significant in drug design and discovering the viral targets for the development of antiretroviral drugs for HIV. The program is still an important component of the AIDS program.
After serving as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Dr. Kirchstein became acting associate director of newly established Office of Research on Women's Health, and was Acting Director of the NIH from July to November 1993.
Dr. Kirchstein's role in American public health has been recognized by numerous honors and awards, including the U. S. Public Health Service (PHS) Superior Service Award in 1978, the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award in 1980, both the PHS Special Recognition Award and the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award (the highest honor for a career civil servant) in 1985, and the Women of Achievement Award from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in 2000.