Remarks From James L. Franklin, M.D.
In the spring of 2005, about 6 months after his 95th Birthday, Dr. Kirsner asked me to write his biography. Having trained in gastroenterology under Dr. Kirsner and having kept in touch with him over the years, I expressed concern about undertaking a project of such importance but Dr. Kirsner assured me with his characteristic optimism that I would have his full support and could not fail. He had only one stipulation, that the book be completed in time for his 100th birthday. During the years that the book was being written, we met in his office or at his home on a weekly basis and spoke by telephone several times a week. Our friendship continued during his remaining years. Through this rich and rewarding experience I came to a greater appreciation of his career and the wonderful qualities that made him the person whose life and legacy we remember today. Allow me to share some of the impressions I treasure from this experience.
Dr. Kirsner had a great love for The University of Chicago. He served it with a loyalty that is seldom seen today. He had unbounded faith in the greatness of this institution and delighted in its venerable history. He entered Tufts Medical School the year of the Great Depression motivated by his belief that medicine would be his calling. He came to Chicago in 1933 to serve his internship at the Woodlawn Hospital but soon found his way to the campus of the University and to the new medical school at Billings Hospital. It was a transformative experience and it was here that he came to work with his mentor, Dr. Walter Lincoln Palmer, the first head of the section of gastroenterology. It was here that he found the field of medicine that throughout his life would be his abiding passion. It was here that he learned the art of being a physician, cultivated his love for research and honed his skills as a teacher. Dr. Palmer had encouraged and supported his doctorate degree in the Biological Sciences. Some of his fondest memories were of the long hours they shared, the hard work and the patients – those suffering from inflammatory bowel disease in particular – who would shape his career. When Dr. Walter Palmer presented Dr. Kirsner with the American Gastroenterological Association’s highest award, the Friedenwald Medal, in May of 1975, he memorably observed that he had never met anyone with Dr. Kirsner’s sustained capacity for hard work.
Dr. Kirsner took genuine pleasure in the accomplishments of the fellows who over the years had trained in gastroenterology. He knew the value of medical research and delighted in being able to promote the careers of those fellows and colleagues who were pursuing academic medicine. He never hesitated to write a letter congratulating an author on a recent publication. His dedication to serve transcended the boundaries of the University of Chicago and he assumed important positions of responsibility in the major national and international medical societies. His service in the National Institutes of Health, the American Gastroenterological Association and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America are notable examples.
Former fellows and colleagues vividly recalled their first meeting with Dr. Kirsner. Uniformly they spoke of his sincerity and personal warmth. Post-graduate physicians who came from abroad to study in Chicago with Dr. Kirsner noted with gratitude his help and understanding as they adjusted to a new language and culture.
Dr. Kirsner embraced the model of academic medicine as a “Three Legged Stool” based on patient care, research and education. For Dr. Kirsner, patient care was the cornerstone that shaped the agenda for research and education. He believed in Francis W. Peabody’s observation that “… the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” As a physician he touched the lives of his patients in ways that were truly extraordinary. Through his personal example and through his writings on the doctor patient relationship, he set a standard of care that is more relevant than ever for the medical profession today. The achievements of his long and distinguished professional career stem from these principles which in the words of his friend, the late professor of medicine Dr. Morton F. Arnsdorf, he accomplished “with eloquence, grace and persuasion.”
Dr. Kirsner knew the value of friendship and cultivated many long and loyal friends. Most memorable were interviews I had with two of the founding members of GIRF, the late Martin Sandler and the late Joseph Valenti, Sr. These friendships began in the 1940s and 1950s and continued into the 21st century. Harry Rosenberg whose father had been the attorney for Dr. Kirsner continued as Dr. Kirsner’s friend and adviser. Harry and his wife Adrian (Adi) made Dr. Kirsner a regular guest in their home to celebrate Passover and major holidays.
When it came to selecting a title for the biography, Dr. Kirsner wanted it to include the phrase “GI Joe.” It was a phrase he believed humanized the project. Not that any of us would have addressed him as “GI Joe,” he was always “Dr. Kirsner.” The pleasure he derived from this double entendre reflected his passion for gastroenterology and the profound effect his years of service during WW II had on him. It speaks to his refined sense of humor, not ribald or cynical, but the love of a good story that made an important point. Dr. Kirsner looked for the positive in every experience. He possessed an optimism that allowed him to go forward, even during these last years as the effects of age and illness took their toll, he still looked forward to another day and adapted to the limitations that were placed on him. He loved being involved and informed on the activities of the section and the University, he strove to continue a schedule at his office, and to share and offer advice on the work being done by GIRF. He was proud of the work being done by Dr. Stephen Hanauer and the section of gastroenterology. When largely confined to his home, he delighted in visits from members of the section that Dr. Eugene Chang organized and the visits, comfort and care he received from Dr. David Rubin along with Dr. Rubin’s wife Becky.
He often talked of his family, of his mother and father and how much they had sacrificed for their children. He spoke of his wife, Minnie, their partnership and how she had sustained him. He was proud of the accomplishments of his son Bob in the field of linguistics and of his grandchildren Daniel and Rachel. He was especially proud of Rachel’s educational achievements and her growing family.
How beautiful the Midway and campus looks today, how green and lush the trees that embrace its noble structures. Dr. Kirsner loved this great university and Rockefeller Chapel so emblematic of this campus. For over seventy years he rejoiced in the sight of this very special place in our city. It was more than 70 years ago, in this chapel on March 20th, 1942 that he received his hard earned doctorate degree in the biological sciences under the gaze of Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchens. His mother, Ida Kirsner, made her only trip to Chicago to share his pride in that achievement. We all miss him and feel a void in our lives; I believe he envisioned an occasion such as this and somehow must feel a sense of contentment that we are mindful of him.