NIH’s Dr Ruth

Hers is one of those familiar fellowship or prize names–like Fulbright, Rhodes, or, in one’s wildest dreams, Nobel–that applicants for academic jobs hope will catch the eye of potential employers or funders. But many of those fortunate enough to have a resum√© line listing a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award know little of the eponymous scientist and civil servant whose death on 6 October, a week before her 83rd birthday, ended an exceptional and still-active career encompassing high attainment in both research and service to the nation and the world.

She was hugely successful because [when] she was asked to take on important leadership positions, … she made something of them.

But it wasn’t Dr. Kirschstein’s stellar attainments, already copiously noted in other articles, that persuaded me to devote this column to her work. Rather, it was where I have repeatedly seen her in recent years: at meetings concerning the welfare of science’s coming generations–events a person of her august standing and advanced years certainly didn’t have to attend. She was one of very few major scientific figures who consistently showed up.

At confab after confab about the worsening circumstances of young researchers, there she would be, a thin, perfectly coiffed woman of the ilk that news reports invariably term “older.” Beneath one cuff of the silken blouses she wore with her crisply tailored skirt suits peeked out what looked like a lymphedema sleeve, perhaps the uncomfortable reminder of a serious illness. When the presentations began, or the question period got under way, she would be on her feet, a good decade or more after nearly all of her generation had moved on to well-deserved retirements. She would ask informed questions or make penetrating comments, pressing to know what could be done to improve the chances of aspiring scientists half a century or more younger than she.

Advancing science

“Science, that’s what mattered to Ruth,” says Maxine Singer, a younger member of Kirschstein’s generation who is herself a noted researcher, the former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and another of the handful of distinguished regulars at the gatherings focused on young scientists. “That’s what motivated her and … made her very effective. She never lost sight of that. That was what she was about, and that was what she was going to foster.” Kirschstein’s interest in young scientists, Singer tells Science Careers in an interview, was an interest not so much in the scientists themselves as in assuring that future generations of researchers would keep science vigorous. In the past few years, another way that Kirschstein demonstrated her devotion to that future was by multiple visits, as part of an NIH outreach program for minority youngsters, to an elementary school in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., to talk about science with the students there.

Trained as a physician, Kirschstein attributed her early interest in scientific research, a filmed interview indicates, in part to a serious illness her mother suffered during Kirschstein’s girlhood. But she never would have had a science career if some of the academic authorities of her own youth had had their way. “When I applied for medical school, women were not very commonly applying,” she says. “I actually applied to every medical school in the United States. At least one of them wrote me and said, ‘We only take men.'”

She became one of 10 women in her class at Tulane University School of Medicine (along with 100 men). After she received her degree, she specialized in pathology and arrived at NIH as a resident in the 1950s. In those days, the Salk polio vaccine, hailed as deliverance from the dreaded scourge that crippled and killed thousands of children every year, ranked as the hottest thing in medical science. Interest in vaccine safety was very high because of the infamous Cutter incident, which involved batches of the vaccine containing inadequately inactivated virus that gave polio to hundreds of children. Kirschstein worked on another aspect of vaccine safety, doing “very prominent” early research on another virus, simian virus 40, which contaminated some of the monkey cells used to grow poliovirus for the Salk vaccine, says Singer, who later joined the same field. Kirschstein played an instrumental role in the worldwide adoption of the Sabin oral polio vaccine and in developing tests for the safety of vaccines for polio and other diseases.

“She initiated an education campaign about the importance of basic research. Convincing Congress that basic research was the path to improved health was an unrivaled accomplishment,” write Howard Shachman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Marvin Cassman, a former director of NIGMS, in an appreciation published in. “By the time she finished,” Singer says, “there was much more [money, and] people were really looking to [NIGMS] for help with basic science, and she gets credit for that.”

Keys to success

“She was hugely successful because [when] she was asked to take on important leadership positions, … she made something of them,” Singer continues. She did so by becoming a highly skilled, pragmatic, and indefatigable administrator who was “very straightforward, always calm, collected, looking for ways to make things happen,” Singer says. In addition, noted NIH Director Francis Collins in a statement, her “modesty… warmth, wisdom, interest, and mentorship” affected a very large number of people.

“She was always very interested in the training of scientists” and expanding their possibilities, Singer says. Although some people–including Singer–believe that “too many people are being trained” for the career openings that currently exist, Kirschstein apparently felt no ambivalence about her mission. “She was bolder than I am about such things,” Singer continues. “She would be more willing to say, ‘We’re going to train more people. There are more [scientific] opportunities, all this great science to do.’ … She was in general very optimistic that things would improve, … and in consequence she did a lot of great things.”

The positive consequences of straightforward and unambivalent commitment may be one of the major lessons offered by her life and work. Here are some others: Persevering in the face of potential rejection can pay off big. Just because something is not commonly done, that is no reason not to do it. Good interpersonal and bureaucratic skills make a real difference in what one can accomplish. One should strive to make as much as possible of the opportunities that come one’s way. And, above all, there are many ways of advancing the cause of science besides working in the lab.

Despite her considerable scientific accomplishments, Kirschstein, by broadening scientific opportunities for talented people of all types and backgrounds and helping to expand the resources devoted to research, almost certainly advanced human welfare and scientific knowledge more than she would have had she stayed at the bench. Today Kirschstein’s name is permanently–and justifiably–linked to prestigious graduate and postdoctoral scholarships that embody her vision–suitable symbols of her research and service to the nation and her striking example of the good that a determined individual can do.

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