Joseph B. Kirsner, MD, PhD ( 1909-2012)
July 09, 2012
Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner passed away at his home in Chicago on Saturday, July 7, 2012. He was 102. For nearly 75 years, Dr. Kirsner devoted his life to medicine, teaching and patient care. Until his retirement three years ago at the age of 100, Dr. Kirsner, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, continued to serve the Department as an invaluable mentor, educator and member of the Section of Gastroenterology, one of the leading GI programs in the United States and remained as a national and international authority in digestive diseases until his death.
Dr. Kirsner was instrumental in the mentorship and training of more than 200 of the field's leading specialists, authored more than 750 publications and his world-acclaimed textbook “Kirsner’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease “, has been the standard work on the topic for over 25 years. He continued to see patients until age 95.
Dr. Kirsner built his distinguished career from humble origins. He grew up in Massachusetts in the early 1900s and was the son of poor Russian immigrants. In 1927, he enrolled in Tufts University's six-year combined premedical-medical program and after graduating near the top of his class, he accepted an internship at Woodlawn Hospital at a salary of $25 a month. During that time, Dr. Kirsner began attending lectures at the University of Chicago and was especially impressed by Walter Palmer, MD, who established the first academic gastroenterology unit in the United States in 1927. Intrigued with academic medicine, Dr. Kirsner applied for a position. In 1935, he was invited to join the staff, and except for military service during World War II, has remained until his retirement. With the expectation that his future advancement depended on conducting research, he enrolled in a PhD program which he completed in 1942. By 1951, Dr. Kirsner had risen through the academic ranks and was appointed as a full Professor of Medicine, and in 1968 was named the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine. In 1971, he was named the chief of staff and deputy dean for medical affairs.
In his 70 plus years in the Department of Medicine, Dr. Kirsner helped transform his specialty of gastroenterology from an art into a science. In the late 1930s, Dr. Kirsner turned his attention to the inflammatory bowel diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Working initially with Dr. Palmer, Dr. Kirsner developed new methods to manage 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. He developed animal models of IBD, demonstrated the influence of genetics, and recognized the increased risk of colon cancer in patients with IBD. His persistence in seeking research funds for his developing field resulted in the creation of the General Medicine Study Section of the National Institutes of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases.
Dr. Kirsner’s contributions to medicine extended beyond his research in gastroenterology. He helped found several professional societies, including the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, the Gastroenterology Research Group (American Gastroenterological Association), and the National Foundation for Research in Ulcerative Colitis, among others. He was a tireless fundraiser for medical research and his work with the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation, which he co-founded, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has been invaluable to those organizations’ support for research and capital campaigns.
Dr. Kirsner received every major award in his field including the Crohn’s and Colitis Lifetime Achievement Award on two occasions (1991 and 2002). Other honors include the Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, the highest honor given to a citizen of the state. He received the American Gastroenterology Association's Distinguished Educator Award in recognition of this research, training, and education of generations of academic and practicing gastroenterologists and The University of Chicago Alumni Association bestowed two of its highest honors on Dr. Kirsner, 1979 Gold Key Award and 1989 Alumni Award. He was the recipient of the Department’s Distinguished Service Award in 2006.
Dr. Kirsner’s close friends started the GastroIntestinal Research Foundation (GIRF) to support his efforts and over the past 40 years GIRF has been instrumental in raising tens of millions of dollars to support the Section, Department and Hospital.
Dr. Kirsner’s legacy will live on through the generations of physicians he taught and thousands of patients he touched.