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Ruth L. Kirschstein: Early role in polio vaccine research

Ruth L. Kirschstein (Lg)Ruth L. Kirschstein, the child of New York City schoolteachers, was born in Brooklyn in 1926 and knew from the time she was in high school that she wanted to go into medicine.  She earned her B. A. from Long Island University in Brooklyn in 1947.  When she entered Tulane Medical School in 1947 she was one of ten women in a class of 110; four years later she received her M. D.  Her early interest in pathology took her to a residency in that specialty at the VA Hospital in Chamblee, Georgia, to Providence Hospital in Detroit, and finally back to Tulane, where she had a NIH-funded fellowship in pathology.

She spent the last year of her residency at NIH in 1956, earning her board certification in anatomic and clinical pathology the following year. The year 1957 also marked Dr. Kirschstein’s beginning in the Division of Biologics Standards (DBS) as a pathologist in the Laboratory of Viral Products. Three years later she was named Chief of the Section of Pathology in the Laboratory, and in 1965, with pathology elevated to laboratory status, Kirschstein became Chief of the Laboratory of Pathology.

In 1955, the year following a field trial that showed the Salk inactivated (killed) polio vaccine to be safe and effective, DBS licensed several firms to produce the vaccine.  One, Cutter Laboratories, accidentally released vaccine that retained live polio virus, resulting in nearly 200 paralytic cases of the disease. In the following years Dr. Kirschstein’s polio investigations paved the way for safer vaccines, both the killed vaccine and live, attenuated oral polio vaccine.  She and her colleagues shed light on the pathogenesis of the polio virus and developed a standardized test involving precise, experimental inoculation of vaccine matter. It served as the basis for the testing DBS conducted on every lot of polio vaccine produced, and the laboratory instructed vaccine producers and others that needed to know the procedure from around the world. 

Ruth L. Kirschstein (2)
Ruth Kirschstein is pictured with biochemist Paul Berg (center) and NIH Director Donald Frederickson.
Kirschstein’s laboratory also investigated means of determining the safety of measles vaccine and the role of viruses in cancer, among other investigations. But her administrative responsibilities had grown considerably.  In 1971, the year before DBS was transferred to FDA as the Bureau of Biologics, she became Deputy Director of the Division, and had the same position in the Bureau.  However, within months Commissioner Charles Edwards appointed her Deputy Associate Commissioner for Science. In 1974 she returned to NIH as the Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the first woman to hold an institute directorship, and in 1993 she became Deputy Director of NIH, a position she carried out for the next decade. Dr. Kirschstein died in 2009, having made the production of therapeutically invaluable medicines a safer and more reliable enterprise, and leaving an indelible impression on the careers of countless researchers she worked with over her long career in science.