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NIH Loses an Icon

Ruth Kirschstein, First Woman Director of an NIH Institute and Twice Acting Director of NIH, Dies

"Every institution has a hidden wiring plan. At NIH, the circuits all seem to connect to Ruth Kirschstein."
(Science, June 15, 2001)

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein Ruth Kirschstein, 82, former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, died October 6th at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Kirschstein was an outstanding scientist, mentor and health administrator. In 1974, she became the first woman to direct an NIH institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a post she held until 1993. Kirschstein served as NIH deputy director under Harold Varmus and twice served as acting director of NIH in 1993 and again in 2000-2002, holding the post for 29 months until Elias Zerhouni took over. "She knew everything, everybody, every rule and was an incredible resource," said Dr. Varmus in the October 16, 2009 issue of Science.

Always keenly interested in involving more women in biomedical research, she became director of the newly established NIH Office of Research on Women's Health in 1990. Dr. Kirschstein was also a crusader for greater training of minority scientists and health professionals, and for involving greater numbers of minority populations in research studies. Despite recent poor health, Dr. Kirschstein was still working until the week before her death, NIH Director Francis Collins said in an e-mail to staff. "The world has lost one of its dearest, most dedicated public servants, one with a huge heart and brilliant mind," Dr. Collins said.

A more detailed biography of Dr. Kirschstein appears on the Web site of the NLM exhibition, Changing the Face of Medicine, profiling America's outstanding female physicians, past and present. Here, too, in brief is a list of her accomplishments, honors and awards.


  • 2002-October 2009, Senior Advisor to Director
  • 2000-2002, Acting Director, NIH (succeeding Harold Varmus)
  • 1994-2000, Principal Deputy Director, NIH
  • 1993 (July to November), Acting Director, NIH (succeeding Bernadine Healy)
  • 1990-1991, Acting Associate Director of the newly established Office of Research on Women's Health
  • 1974-1993, Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and first female director of any Institute
  • 1956, joined NIH as a medical officer in clinical pathology
    -Developed, refined and applied a test that provided a means for ensuring the safety of viral vaccines such as those for polio, measles and rubella
    -Advocated for the use of the Sabin oral vaccine for polio

Honors and Awards:

  • U. S. Public Health Service (PHS) Superior Service Award (1978)
  • Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award (1980)
  • 1985, both the PHS Special Recognition Award and the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award (the highest honor for a career civil servant)
  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's Public Service Award
  • PHS Equal Opportunity Achievement Award
  • Alice C. Evans Award of the American Society for Microbiology (1999)
  • Women of Achievement Award from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (2000)
  • NIH's National Research Service Award was renamed the "Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards," to honor Dr. Kirschstein's brilliant career, service to the nation, and commitment to future generations of scientists (by the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research Funding - Senator Tom Harkin announced the tribute on May 22, 2002)
  • Member of the Institute of Medicine
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences