During Women’s History Month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is spotlighting the careers of public health pioneers such as pathologist Ruth Kirschstein, M.D. Kirschstein was the first woman to direct the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. She also served as deputy director of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s, and was acting director of the NIH in 1993 and from 2000 to 2002.
Kirschstein was born in Brooklyn in 1926. Her parents wee both teachers. She earned her B. A. from Long Island University in Brooklyn in 1947 and entered Tulane Medical School that same year as one of just ten women in a class of 110. She received her M.D. four years later and completed her residency with an NIH-funded fellowship in pathology in Tulane.
In 1955, the year after Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for polio, one lab accidentally released a batch of the vaccine that contained live polio virus. Almost 200 people were paralyzed. Following that tragedy, Kirschstein worked to develop safe vaccines, both those containing the killed virus and the attenuated oral polio vaccine containing live virus. Her team developed the standardized test performed on every lot of polio vaccine produced and educated vaccine producers around the world.
Among the many awards Kirschstein received was the Presidential Rank Award of Distinguished Executive, the nation’s highest civil service honor. She and her husband Dr. Alan S. Rabson, who was also a pathologist, were married for 59 years. She died in 2009.