Honoring Lorraine Charlton Ruff: Teacher, Mentor, and Friend

In honor of International Women’s History Month, I’m taking a trip down memory lane to celebrate bioscience communications pioneer, the late Lorraine Charlton Ruff. This is how we met and the lessons she left behind.
It was early days in the Boston biotech scene when I had an informational interview at international PR firm Hill & Knowlton (H&K). I entered the Waltham, MA offices to meet the firm’s Managing Director and sat in the waiting room anxiously second-guessing my new black pinstripe suit and patent-leather pumps. The perfectly beige, quietly humming office was a stark difference from the colorful, loud newsroom to which I’d become accustomed while working as an associate producer at WPRI-TV; yet it felt like an important place. I was curious, though completely unaware that my career trajectory would change the moment Lorraine Ruff strode into the room and greeted me with the heartfelt warmth of a favorite aunt.
Lorraine Ruff had a commandingly feminine presence and an impeccable work ethic. As head of H&K’s first New England Biosciences Practice, she was equal parts leader and doer, working by day alongside our team to service and grow the firms’ biotech client base, and by night doing what she most loved: writing.

Lorraine’s reputation as a Pulitzer Prize nominee for her coverage of Agent Orange on behalf of the Portland Oregonian preceded her transition into the Public Relations field. She brought the keen intellect of a scientist and instincts of a reporter to every client engagement, asking probing questions to ensure that every company’s science was backed by a strong intellectual property (IP) position, credible data, and peer-review. She interrogated things further by reading patent filings and journal articles in search of insights that shed light on the “how” and “why.” She knew there was a fine line between news and publicity and made it her mission to counsel press-hungry clients to avoid hype at all costs, citing the “Cold Fusion” controversy more times than I can count.

Lorraine was gifted in the art of technical writing and credible, fact-based storytelling. She deftly translated our clients’ early-stage inventions into white papers, press releases, backgrounders, pitch letters, and editorials, all of which bore her trademark eloquence. With every word, she simplified complexity. She was obsessed with clearly understanding and communicating a molecule’s mechanism of action in non-jargony terms – i.e., “the business end of the molecule” – that ordinary people could grasp, raising the bar for biotech PR folks everywhere. Her prolific body of work simultaneously educated and engaged the most discerning investors and trade, regional and national media, who in turn gave tempered hope to patients. She was a pro.

Under her tutelage, we raised visibility and awareness of many early 1990’s investigational breakthroughs, covering a range of topics – including allergy immunotherapies, xenotransplantation, in ovo vaccinations for livestock, phytopharmaceuticals, renewable earth products, and the controversial bovine somatotropin growth hormone. We also successfully pitched one of the first national stories of an experimental cancer immunotherapy, an IL-2 fusion toxin therapy tested in Phase 2 clinical trials for Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma. We worked with NBC news reporter Robert Bazell to showcase a Massachusetts man’s stunning remission. No one had ever seen a patient covered in tumor lesions so visibly experience a complete response, and it elevated the promise of immunotherapy for physicians and patients everywhere. Years later, the drug was successfully commercialized under the trade name Ontak®, until being clinically discontinued due to production issues.

That company, like many of its peers, was acquired when the money dried up and their IP was absorbed into the development engines of larger biotech and pharma companies. When it became a trend, Lorraine moved on to pursue a role in the more mature West Coast life sciences arena, and I left for a new West Coast opportunity. She, her husband, and two basset hounds found their way back to the Pacific Northwest. There, she launched Milestones, The Critical Thinking Company, pursuing government contracts conducting technology assessments. We did our best to stay connected over the years, but lost touch when my life got busy juggling three kids and my career. A few years later I got around to reaching back out, only to find her number disconnected, and after a Google search learned the dreaded news of her death in 2015. It was the first time I truly felt the meaning of regret.

Yet Lorraine lives on in my work. Her lessons were plentiful. She taught me patience, saying I needed more tread on my newbie tires before being promoted. She insisted that the devil was in the details, and that as professionals, we can do 100 things right, but it’ll be the one thing we do wrong that people will remember. She held me to a high standard – praising my written work, but challenging me to think more broadly, go deeper, and try again. She taught me that empowerment is the key to management and gave me challenges beyond my pay grade. She set me loose on media relations, pointed me towards resources, and stepped aside until I requested her guidance. She took me with her to most every client meeting so I could hear first-hand the challenges and opportunities our clients faced, positioning me as her thought partner in developing comprehensive strategies for when, where, and how we told their story. I didn’t say much in those meetings, but what I learned was priceless. The last lesson she taught me was recognizing impermanence and the importance of expressing gratitude.

Many months after our first meeting, Lorraine said, “Kimmer, it felt like kismet when I first saw you in the waiting room and you flashed your Princess Di-like smile. I decided to hire you on the spot.” I wish I could go back and say thank you. I would tell her that while her many lessons are etched in my mind, it was her sparkling blue eyes, radiant grin, and professional toughness on me that will forever endure in my heart. Lorraine was more than my first boss; she was my mentor. And for all my success I owe her abundant gratitude. I know she would be infinitely proud of me and in absolute awe of how far her beloved biotech industry has come with the help of the talented communicators who have followed in her footsteps. She was truly one of the best. A belated RIP to the marvelous Mrs. Ruff.

Related Articles