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Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein: Bringing Humanity to Public Health

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, NIH

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, NIH

This Jewish American Heritage Month, we recognize the impact of pathologist Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD on the field of medicine, particularly in biomedical research and public health. In addition to serving as the first female Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Kirschstein was an influential scientist, administrator, and advocate who played a vital role in shaping biomedical research policies in the United States.

Kirschstein's father, Julius, was a Russian immigrant and attended the School of Engineering at Columbia University, earning a chemical engineering degree.

"He was one of two Jewish men in the class of maybe 30 or 40. At the time they graduated, the professor said to the students as he went down the line, 'Well, I’ll get you a job here and you a job here and you a job here.' When he got to the two Jewish men, he said, 'I have no jobs to give you.' My father, therefore, ended up teaching chemistry in high school in New York City and creating some inventions of various types on the side," Kirschstein said in an oral history published by the National Institutes of Health.

Her mother, Elizabeth, born in America, was also a teacher, educating elementary school-age children. She suffered from non-tropical sprue, which today is known as celiac disease. She would spend long stints in the hospital being treated by specialists like Dr. Crohn of Crohn's disease fame. Even with such an intricate and impactful medical history, Kirschstein wasn’t sure if that childhood experience of living through her mother's illness led to her career in science. However, she contended that her father was a big thinker and her hero.

"He never treated me like a child, and we lived together without my mother for a very long time. He took me everywhere with him. He took me to concerts when I was six years old; he took me to museums; he took me everywhere," she said.

In high school, Kirschstein played the piano and French horn and recalled being quite good. So good that her parents thought she would become a musician. But by the time she was heading to college, she knew she wanted to go to medical school, ultimately attending Long Island University. She spent a couple of summers working as a med tech in a laboratory for a local hospital until it was time to apply for medical school.

"You apply to medical school when you are a senior in college, at the beginning of your senior year, and I knew how tough it was going to be. So, I literally wrote letters to every medical school in the country requesting applications. Several of them, such as the University of Colorado, wrote back and said, 'We don't take out-of-staters.' Thomas Jefferson Medical School wrote back and said, 'We don’t take women.' Others sent me their application forms, and I applied to a very large number," Kirschstein recalled.

Ultimately, she interviewed with an alumnus and was accepted at Tulane, but not after a suggestion to consider changing her name to get accepted to medical schools by the interviewer from Yale.

"So I went to Tulane, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," she said.

By this time, it was nearly 1950 and out of the 4,000 applicants, Kirschstein would be one of the 110 students admitted to this first post-World War II class. Of those 110 students, 10 were women. In addition, Louisiana was still a segregated state.

"Those two water fountains gave me the shock of my life. It was reinforced by the segregated buses and trolley cars. What one was supposed to do was to move it, so that 'colored people' sat behind and white in front. If you got on and you needed a seat, you simply moved it, and the colored person was expected to stand up. I spent four years standing on buses and trolley cars. I never sat down," Kirschstein shared.

She also mentioned that the hospital wards were still segregated by race and gender, which shaped her attitude towards things, especially later as director of the National Institute of General Medical Services (NIGMS).

Kirschstein fell in love with pathology during her second year of medical school and soon after fell in love with her husband Al, a fellow pathologist. While creating a family with Al, Kirschstein chose pathology because of the work-life balance and finished medical school.

Kirschstein's most notable contribution was her work in advancing the understanding of viral diseases, particularly in the field of virology. She conducted groundbreaking research on the biology, pathogenesis, and control of various viruses, including the herpes simplex virus. Her studies significantly contributed to the development of antiviral therapies and the prevention of viral infections.

In addition to her scientific contributions, Kirschstein held leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, serving as the Deputy Director of the NIH and the Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). During her tenure, Kirschstein played a crucial role in shaping policies related to biomedical research funding, training programs for scientists, and advancing diversity and inclusion in the scientific community.

Moreover, Ruth Kirschstein was a strong advocate for public health and played a pivotal role in promoting research on women's health issues and health disparities. She championed efforts to address gender and racial disparities in biomedical research and to improve the representation of underrepresented groups in the scientific workforce.

Kirschstein's contributions to medicine were recognized and celebrated by numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award, the Public Health Service Outstanding Service Medal, and the prestigious Albert Sabin Gold Medal for her work on viral diseases.

Overall, Ruth L. Kirschstein made significant contributions to medicine through her scientific research, leadership roles in biomedical institutions, and advocacy for public health and scientific inclusivity. Her work has had a lasting impact on virology, biomedical research policies, and the advancement of public health initiatives.

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