Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein

I wanted to be a doctor from a very young age, even before I went to high school. And I’m not sure exactly what motivated me. I had a father who was a chemist. I had a mother who was extremely ill through most of my childhood, and spent a long time in the hospital. It may have been that, that motivated me partly, as well. When I applied for medical school women were not very commonly applying for school—I actually applied to every medical school in the United States. At least one of them wrote me and said, “We only take men.” And that sort of was not a very good thing, and it didn’t make me very happy. Today, over 50 percent of each medical school class are women. When I went to medical school it was a very small number in my class, which started in 1947, which was the first post-World War II class. It actually had 10 out of 110, which was pretty big, but when you think about it, 5 of them were nurses who had been in the military, were able to get the GI Bill to go to medical school, and decided they didn’t really want to answer to anybody else anymore— they wanted to be their own bosses.

So it is a real difference now. In addition, Ph.D. biological and chemical scientists make up about 40 percent of our graduate programs in those areas. But the problem is that women are still not in sufficient leadership positions in medical schools and in universities. There are very few women deans of medical schools. There are not many chairwomen of departments, and where we have been very successful, and I am absolutely thrilled, there are something like ten women presidents of major universities—we need more.

If you have a population of leaders who are all men, they are never going to think of women. They are never going to think of minorities. They are only going to think of people like themselves. And so that told me, when I got the job as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, that I had to see that we changed the culture. And that we thought about women for jobs, and we thought about minorities for jobs. Actually, people said to me when I became the director of NIGMS—the National Institute of General Medical Sciences—people said, “Well, you’re going to hire only women.” And I said, “No; I’m going to give women an equal opportunity to men. But I don’t believe in having an institute that’s all men or all women. We are equal.” And so I did that, quite deliberately.