Life and Legacy


Establishing a Career

Arriving 8 years after the University of Chicago Hospital completed construction and for nearly 74 years there after, Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner has devoted his life to medicine, teaching and patient care. At the age of 99, Dr. Kirsner, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, continues to serve the Department as an invaluable mentor, educator and member of the Section of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, one of the leading GI programs in the United States, and remains as a national and international authority in digestive diseases. He has been instrumental in the mentorship and training of more than 200 of the field’s leading specialists, authored nearly 800 publications and his world-acclaimed textbook “Kirsner’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease “ now in its sixth edition, has been the standard work on the topic for over 20 years.

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 L. 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 ever since. With the expectation that his future advancement depended upon excellence in research, he enrolled in a PhD program in Biology 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, a position he currently holds today.

Service in World War II

Early in 1943, though he was listed as an essential teacher, Dr. Kirsner volunteered for active military duty. After military training at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, he served as Chief of Gastroenterology in the U.S. Army 15th General Hospital. This unit established a hospital in Ellsmere, England. Late in June 1944, his outfit crossed the English Channel and landed on Utah Beach, Normandy. He later moved to the Liege area in Belgium, where he remained until the war in Europe ended. In November 1944, the 15th General Hospital was destroyed by a German V-1 rocket with numerous casualties. The hospital served as medical support for the First Army crossing the Siegfried line, Germany. Dr. Kirsner then was assigned to the 229th General Hospital. After a 55 day boat trip the outfit settled in Linguyan Gulf in the Phillipines. Several months later they crossed the North China Sea and established a hospital in Wagoya, Japan. He returned home in August 1946.

A Founder, A Doctor, A Pioneer

He first met Dean Lowell T. Coggeshall of the National Institute of Health in 1947 and developed a strong friendship with him. Together, in the early 1950’s, they fostered the establishment of the General Medicine study section of the NIH, a major support of academic research. The strong friendship with Coggeshall continued until Coggeshall retired from the University of Chicago.

In his 71 years at the University of Chicago, Dr. Kirsner has 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 much protein–a finding that emphasized the importance of nutrition. He developed animal models of IBD, including an immune model demonstrated the influence of genetics, and recognized the increased risk of colon cancer in patients with IBD.

Dr. Kirsner’s contributions to medicine extend beyond his research in gastroenterology. He helped found 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 is a tireless fundraiser for medical research and his work with the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation, which he co-founded in 1962, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (New York) has been invaluable.

He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his long career Most recently, he was the recipient the Dean’s Medal of Tufts University School of Medicine in recognition as a distinguished graduate of their medical school and as a renowned researcher, educator and clinician. Other honors include the Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, the highest citizen honor of the state. He received the American Gastroenterology Association’s Friedenweld Medal and the Distinguished Educator Award in recognition of training generations of academic and practicing gastroenterologists, the Distinguished Service Award from National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. The University of Chicago Alumni Association bestowed two of its highest honors on Dr. Kirsner, 1979 Gold Key Award and 1989 Alumni Award.

Despite his pivotal role as a physican, researcher and teacher, Dr. Kirsner regards his most rewarding contributions have been the care of patients, and the training of young men and women. Many agree that his success as a role model is what truly makes him a great academic physician.