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NIH Loses an Icon, Ruth Kirschstein

7 October 2009 3:50 pm
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kirschstein Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and beyond are mourning the loss of a beloved leader, mentor, and friend, former NIH Deputy Director Ruth Kirschstein. Kirschstein, 82, an M.D. who spent more than 50 years as a civil servant, died last night at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, "after battling a long illness," NIH Director Francis Collins said in an e-mail to NIH staff.

Kirschstein and her husband Alan Rabson, a deputy director at the National Cancer Institute, "were fixtures of the NIH campus" for decades, says former NIH Director Harold Varmus. They came to Bethesda in the 1950s to work as pathology researchers and for most of their careers lived in a house on the campus. While at NIH's biologics division, later part of the Food and Drug Administration, Kirschstein investigated a disease-causing batch of polio vaccine and helped choose the Sabin vaccine for world-wide use. In 1974, she became the first woman to direct an NIH institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. During her 19 years there she promoted cell and molecular biology and pushed to support young investigators and diversity in science.

Kirschstein later served as NIH deputy director for 6 years when Varmus became director in 1993. "She knew everything, everybody, every rule, and was an incredible resource," says Varmus. She also served twice as acting NIH director. Circumspect in manner, she was known for bringing stability to the agency. "She really steered the ship well in times with an inordinate amount of time between NIH directors," says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That included 29 months as NIH acting director before Elias Zerhouni became director in 2002 and made her a senior adviser. In 2002, Congress renamed NIH's graduate student fellowship program after Kirschstein.

Although in poor health, Kirschstein was still working and took part in a conference call just last week, Collins's note says. With her when she died were Rabson and their son Arnold Rabson, a molecular geneticist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Kirschstein was "an icon" who "embodied the spirit of the NIH," Collins's note said. "There are few at the NIH who have not been touched by her warmth, wisdom, interest, and mentorship." NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman credits her with influencing the careers of "many people" in leadership positions at NIH, including himself.

"She was one of the most powerful figures and certainly one of the most powerful women at NIH," says a close follower of NIH, Anthony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Her death marks "the passing of a generation. It's hard to think of NIH without Ruth Kirschstein," Mazzaschi says.