Joseph B. Kirsner, MD, PhD, devoted his life to the art and science of medicine, establishing, and then leading, the section of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the University of Chicago Medicine for over 80 years. That section has been credited as being the first academic GI unit in the world. He served as a mentor to generations of physicians and established a legacy of practical wisdom, personal integrity, rigorous scientific inquiry, and unequaled patient care (Author photo 1, Author photo 2, Author photo 3, Author photo 4, Author photo 5, Author photo 6, Author photo 7, Author photo 8, Author photo 9, Author photo 10, Author photo 11, Video 1 available online at www.VideoGIE.org).
Dr Kirsner was born in 1909 to Russian immigrant parents in Massachusetts. In 1927, he began his medical training at Tufts University, and he joined the University of Chicago in 1935 as an instructor in medicine. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1942. He volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II and was Chief of Gastroenterology in the U.S. Army 15th General Hospital, caring for soldiers in England, on the beaches of Normandy, and in Japan. After the war, in 1946, Kirsner returned to the University of Chicago, rising through the ranks to be named the Louis Block Professor of Medicine in 1961.
His scholarship spanned the entire field of gastroenterology, with a primary focus on the study of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs): Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Working initially with Walter L. Palmer, MD, PhD, at the University of Chicago, Dr Kirsner developed new methods to treat IBD patients. In the 1940s, he demonstrated that patients with even mild IBD lost a great deal of protein—a finding that placed new emphasis on the importance of nutrition (and now, many years later, explains the pharmacodynamics of monoclonal antibodies). He developed animal models of IBD, demonstrated the influence of genetics, and was one of the first to recognize the increased risk of colon cancer in patients with IBD. His skill as a physician was known the world over; he flew to Morocco regularly over a 23-year period to care for King Hassan II and his family members. Incredibly, he saw patients until he was 95 years old; he then came to work daily until age 100 and several times weekly until his death at age 102.
Dr Kirsner’s contributions to medicine extend beyond his research and patient care. He helped found several professional societies, including the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, the Gastroenterology Research Group (of the American Gastroenterological Association), and the National Foundation for Research in Ulcerative Colitis, among others. In 1963, 2 of his grateful patients established the Gastrointestinal Research Foundation to independently support research in GI diseases, which still thrives and has raised over 50 million dollars to date.
He received the American Gastroenterology Association’s Distinguished Educator Award in recognition of his research, training, and education of generations of academic and practicing gastroenterologists, and alumni recognition from Tufts and the University of Chicago. He was honored with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s lifetime achievement award—twice.
Dr Kirsner is remembered by his patients, friends, students, protégés, and colleagues for his dedication to his profession and his towering achievements, but even more so for his character. A man of warmth, loyalty, and honesty, he lived by his principles and cared deeply for all of humanity. His long life well lived gave him the perspective and insight of a philosopher, teaching that “the essence of gastroenterology is service to sick people; a function dependent upon the continuing flow of new information, continuing medical education, and continuing attention to the human needs of the patient.”