Polio vaccine figure Ruth Kirschstein dies

September - October, 2009  |  Volume 8, Issue 5

PHOTO: Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, who passed away Oct 6 2009, speaking at a podium

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, a leading figure in making polio vaccine safer and decades later mobilizing an NIH response to the emerging AIDS epidemic, died Oct. 6 at the age of 82 after a long illness. From 2000 to 2002, she was acting director of the NIH.

"Ruth Kirschstein's brilliant and passionate dedication to public health led to the saving of millions of lives around the world and made her a true global health hero," said Fogarty director Dr. Roger I. Glass. "When I arrived at Fogarty, she sat me down and gave me wonderful advice that has helped me throughout my tenure. She was a most kind, understanding and insightful woman, scientist and leader and we will all miss her."

In the 1950s, Kirschstein led the search for a safer alternative to the Salk polio vaccine, resulting in widespread use at home and abroad of the Sabin oral vaccine. When AIDS first appeared in the United States in the 1980s, Kirschstein and her staff were met with strong conservative political opposition to solving the crisis. Despite this, she mobilized a research group to track down funding, investigate the virus and develop drugs to alleviate or prevent its attack.

Her HIV/AIDS work has had global implications, especially in areas worst hit by the epidemic, such as Africa.

Kirschstein later became director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the first woman to head an institute.

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