Skip to content
Several pictures of doctors who are featured on the Local Legends web site

MEET LOCAL LEGEND: Ruth Kirschstein, M.D.

Picture of Ruth Kirschstein

Ruth Kirschstein, M.D.

“I wanted to be a doctor from a very young age - even before I went to high school. 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. It may have been that, that motivated me partly as well.”


Chris Van Hollen



As director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences from 1974 to 1993, 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 polio vaccine was blamed for more than two hundred cases of polio. Kirschstein led the search for a safer alternative, advocating the Sabin oral vaccine used worldwide. For her leadership, she was awarded the 1971 Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Superior Service Award. In the 1980s, Kirschstein was again a leader in the public health response to the emerging AIDS epidemic, organizing funding and mobilizing an NIH research team to take on the task in the face of conservative opposition.

Kirschstein graduated magna cum laude from Long Island University in 1947, earned her M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1951, and interned in medicine and surgery at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn. Specializing in pathology, she did 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, she was 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 Kirschstein 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, becoming deputy director later that year when it became a Food and Drug Administration bureau.

After serving as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, she became acting associate director of the newly established Office of Research on Women's Health. Kirschstein was also acting director of NIH twice: in 1993 and from 2000-2002. She earned the accolade of former NIH director, Dr. Harold Varmus, who said in the October 16, 2009 issue of Science, "She knew everything, everybody, and every rule and was an incredible resource."

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 NIH AIDS program.

Ruth Kirschstein'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.



First woman to be appointed director of an institute-the National Institute of General Medical Sciences-of the National Institutes of Health


Acting Associate Director of the newly established Office of Research on Women's Health


Acting Director, National Institutes of Health


Acting Director, National Institutes of Health


Senior Advisor to the Director, National Institutes of Health


1926 (died 2009)


Tulane University School of Medicine



Sub Specialty

Government administration