Remarks From Seymour Taxman

Today we celebrate the life of Sr. Joseph B Kirsner. To me and my family, Dr. Joe became something more than just a doctor.

The first time I met Dr. Joe was about 20 years ago when our son Glenn was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara. In his second year, just before finals, he called home in obvious physical distress, and said the clinic had diagnosed his gastric problems as Crohn’s Disease. Rather than allow him to be treated out there, we asked that he wait and come back to Chicago for an evaluation. My wife Nancy’s folk’s, who were social friends with Joe and his wife Minnie, made the introduction and Glenn saw Dr. Joe shortly thereafter. I believe it may have been Dr. Steve Hanauer that did the scope. When Dr. Joe came to discuss the results with Nancy and me, he had a twinkle in his eye when he told us Glen does not have Crohn’s. He assured us that when he was experiencing was “irritable bowel” and he had medication that should help him. When he wrote out the script, he insisted I go downstairs and fill it while at the hospital. When I asked him why fill it here, his comment was that the fancy drug stores on the North Shore won’t carry it, it’s too expensive. He was right, the bottle of a tincture of Belladonna cost $5 at the time at the hospital pharmacy. I later learned that he was right when we tried to refill it at a pharmacy on the North Shore months later.

After that visit, Dr. Joe made it a point to keep in touch with me to see how Glenn was doing, and as he predicted, with the help of the medication, Glenn did fine and is now practicing law in California, he is married, and has two wonderful kids.

Many years later, while I was sitting with Dr. Joe at a GIRF Board Meeting, out of the blue, he asked me how Glenn was doing. I told him he was doing fine ad was enjoying his life as a California resident, to which he chided those doctors that had diagnosed Glenn with Crohn’s by saying “those guys are better at treating a sunburn than gastric problems.” This was typical of Dr. Joe. While he was a warm, caring person, he had very little patience for incompetence.

I became a patient of Dr. Joe rather than a parent of a patient after suffering from very severe abdominal pain and other awful symptoms associated with a gastric problem. A young Gastroenterologist in suburban Chicago diagnosed the problem as Ischemic Colitis. I called Dr. Joe and explained the circumstances and diagnosis and asked to come in and be evaluated by him and his team. To my surprise he said not to come in yet, but talk to a gentleman he believed was the #1 physician in the United States dealing with this disease. He asked me to stay by the phone and 10 minutes later, I was on the phone with Dr. Larry Brandt from Bronx, New York. Over the next several years, through the kindness and care of both Dr. Brand and Dr. Joe, I was able to deal with this disease without surgery. Never a week passed without a call from Dr. Joe, always with the same cheerful question “how did it go this week?”

Seeing Dr. Joe at his weekly clinic became a regular visit for me. It usually meant showing up at 7:30am in order to be his first patient. At one of those visits e was exploring some of my health issues and history, and I mentioned to him, in a somewhat joking fashion, that I’d been in enough emergency rooms over the past 5 years to author a guide to quality ERs. I explained that I had repeated and severe chest pains which necessitated going to the emergency room to see if I was having a coronary event. His response was very quick and quite abrupt when he said “I don’t think so!” When he learned I had not yet had anything to eat that morning, he quickly picked up the phone, called the Radiology Dept, and said he was sending a patient down for an ultrasound, “to prove that I didn’t have a gallbladder disease.” He made it very clear he wanted the Radiologist and not a tech to perform the procedure. When he put down the phone, I told him I had been checked repeated for gallbladder disease and was told there was no problem. He looked at me as only he could and said “We shall see.” 15 minutes later, I was lying down on the table having the ultrasound procedure.

I could see the Radiologist was not happy to be performing this test on such short notice. Within 5 minutes I heard him say to one of his techs “please call Dr. Kirsner and have him come down and look at what we found…I can’t believe the old guy was right again.” Within 2 days, Dr. Joe arranged for surgery and removal of my gallbladder, and I can happily say, I never had another such attack, and the guide to ERs never was completed or published.

When Dr. Joe turned my primary care over to Dr. David Rubin, that same care and follow-up continued and continues to this day. I’ll be forever grateful as a patient for the standard of care that was established by Dr. Joe and has been carried through Dr. Steve Hanauer, Dr. David Rubin, and others.

It was because of Dr. Joe that we became actively involved in the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation. Other than in the last year or so, I can’t remember a Board Meeting that wasn’t attended by Dr. Joe. You could always look forward to seeing him, nattily dressed and ready to help in any way he could. To me, Dr. Joe was more than just a doctor. He was truly a humble hero who refused to recognize the value and breadth of the contributions he made not only in medicine, but in establishing the level of care for patients that became a standard throughout the GI section at the U of C, and hopefully, the same standard that’s carried on by the hundreds of doctors he’s trained.

His humility is best illustrated by the following stories.

First, several years ago at a GIRF Ball, I noticed on the items to be auctioned off that evening, a watch described as an 18 carat gold watch, given to Dr. Joe on the occasion of his 90th birthday, from the Majesty King II of Morocco. I told the auctioneer not to sell it without giving me the last bid. I bought the watch and walked over to Joe’s table to give it to him, and before I could say anything he said, “Stop! I know what you were doing, but that watch is too fancy for me and I want you to wear it whenever you go to a GIRF Ball or a special function.” I have done that every year, and this being that “special function” I am wearing it today.

Second, about 4 years ago, I was working diligently, without his knowledge, to try and secure the Presidential Medal of Freedom for him. He called me one day and asked me to have lunch at the International Club at The Drake, one of his favorite restaurants. As it turned out, that restaurant was closed for lunch that day, do Dr. Joe said let’s go have a great hamburger at another restaurant in the same Hotel. When we sat down and he placed his order of hamburgers and fries, I asked if that was part of a new suggested gastric diet. He looked at me and said, “If you get to be my age, you can eat whatever you want.” At lunch that day, we talked about a lot of things, but mostly GIRF, how we could improve our fundraising, and some general thoughts about the ways to better the world around us. Finally, he looked at me and said “I know what you’re trying to do for me, and I am not worthy of this honor.” Rather than arguing with his position, I let it pass and we finished our lunch. I guess I should’ve challenged his response, but I knew it would fall on deaf ears. Today we can’t just let that statement pass. We have to look at why Dr. Joe deserves the recognition:

In more than 60 years at the University of Chicago, he pioneered the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. He won every major award in gastroenterology – except for the one named after him. And he published almost 800 scientific papers and a textbook that is 842 pages long and weighs 4.4 pounds. Fifty years ago, together with patients, Dr. Kirsner established the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation. The foundation has raised nearly $30 million to support research at the university. Renowned as the father of modern gastroenterology, Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner is the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of the American Gastroenterology Association, and has received the Distinguished Educator Award from the American Gastroenterological Association. He set the national standard for gastroenterological instruction. Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner has trained more than 200 leading specialists including professors and department chairs at medical and research institutions over the past six decades. The recipient of countless awards and recognitions, Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner had produced numerous scientific papers and publications and serves on a vast number of advisory committees and boards. A valiant patriot, Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner volunteered and honorably served his country in the United States Army as a major of the Medical Corps during World War II and earned three battle stars and European and Pacific Victory medals. Dr. Kirsner conducted invaluable research on peptic ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis and Crohn’s disease, making numerous breakthroughs in the field on patient management and cancer.
Dr. Kirsner helped found several professional societies, including the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Dr. Kirsner was unrelenting in raising funds for gastrointestinal programs around the country, leading to creation of the General Medicine Study Section of the National Institutes of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases.
Dr. Kirsner received every major award the field of gastroenterology has to offer, except the one he was not eligible to win: American Digestive Health Foundation’s top price for excellence in clinical research, the Joseph, B. Kirsner Award. Dr. Joe graced the world with a wealth of knowledge and medical resources, bestowing unparalleled insight upon the countless doctors, researchers, professors, patients, family, and friends who benefit from his counsel. When Majesty King Hassan II asked the NIH for a physician to deal with his gastric problems, the NIH asked Dr.Joe to go over and see if he could help him. For 25 years thereafter, Dr. Joe became the personal physician to his majesty and his family. In that capacity, Dr. Joe represented the University of Chicago, the best of gastric medicine, and his country, the United States of America.

This list is just a small token of his accomplishments and contributions. He was not “unworthy, he was just overlooked.” Clearly, this was a man deserving recognition with the highest civilian award available in the United States. While our efforts in regard have not, to date, resulted in that reward being granted, I will be in touch with both our United States Senators to re-activate this effort. As some of you here may remember, then Congressman Mark Kirk introduced a Bill in 100th Congress as H.R. 6865 to award him the Congressional Gold Medal. Unfortunately, politics prevented that Bill from going forward (Kirk being a Republican, the Bill could not move forward without the then Speaker of the House). While Senator Mark Kirk is now recovering from his own serious illness, I have been assured the Presidential Medal of Freedom will be re-visited and thoroughly vetted.

Getting back to the story of Dr. Joe, even on his 100th birthday, he was still getting calls from patients seeking medical advice, and he was always happy to oblige.

He was quoted at one time as saying “I just enjoying helping people in trouble … I get a sense of importance in being able to do that.” He also joked about being north of 100 when he told a reporter that his biggest concern is “having an active mind trapped in a body that’s just too old”.

We sometimes forget that by many learned people, he’s considered to be the “father of modern gastroenterology.” He’s devoted his life to helping others whether through medical research, education, or just healing those who need help. His legacy is and continues to be the hundreds of doctors he’s trained in his image.

One of those students, David A. Morowitz, M.D. gave a very moving speech with the AGA converged in Chicago in 2009. I quote David as follows. “Though Joseph Kirsner started as a scientist, the bedside became the springboard of his career. Watching his unique mixture of brain and heart, we quickly realized that while today’s medical science was always destined to change, the Kirsner style of patient-oriented medical practice was permanent, unalterable, set in stone. He became our curriculum.

Also in that speech, David recounted the first time he made rounds with Dr. Joe, and the days’ first patient was a young man suffering from severe abdominal pain but had no positive tests indicating anything was wrong.

When the group filed out into the hallway, one of the junior members of the medical team volunteered, “what the patient needs is a good psychiatrist,” Dr. Joe’s face showed his disapproval and Dr. Joe asserted “No, what he needs is a good friend.”

That was what Dr. Joe has been to me and everyone who have had the privilege of being touched by his life and for that we are very thankful.