Remarks from David A. Morowitz, M.D.
E. B. White once suggested: “If you wish to write about man, and by that, he meant “mankind”, consider writing about A man, just one man”, and perhaps providing an idea of who that man might be.
And it is in that spirit, today we honor, perhaps for the very last time in public, one superior example of our species, for some, a hero of 20th Century American medicine who, in his working lifetime, earned and harvested many such celebrations.
He can’t hear us now, yet this task, while tinted with sadness, is still a privilege. We leaf through the communal storehouse of JBK anecdotes, always flattering, occasionally exaggerated, including hundreds, perhaps thousands preserved in affectionate memory—monuments to a permanent, loving legacy, virtually all created within a few hundred yards from where we are met today.
What we KNOW is that he was the quintessential “doctor’s doctor”: part worrier, part warrior, honest, reflective, relentlessly generous, devoid of pretense. And the excellence and rarity of Joseph Kirsner’s professional life are mirrored in a letter written decades ago by Saul Bellow to his younger colleague, Philip Roth: “I knew when I hit Chicago and read your stories that you were the real thing.
When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I’ve never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil”. Pondering the “music” of Joe Kirsner’s “hammer and his anvil”, one might ask: HOW did he get to be so important? He wasn’t particularly handsome or famously wealthy, and his physique seemed far from memorable. His voice had no musical content. Women didn’t swoon in his presence, and he had no historic ancestors. There is no Kirsner syndrome, and no instrument, surgical procedure , methodology, or vaccination bearing his name. He is not remembered for any particular discovery, medication, or treatment modality, and I cannot recall anyone ever describing him as a genius. He was, in point of fact, the eldest son of Russian-Jewish immigrants growing up in one of the crowded, poorer areas of Boston, a respectful boy who adored his mother, always having an after-school job, getting good grades, and coming to maturity by training to be a doctor, later ripening his professionalism by coming to Chicago to continue it.
But he possessed an unmistakable magic; his white coat was like those gold halos painted over the heads of Renaissance saints. And to be his patient was so special.
His greatness derived from an astonishing capacity for ceaseless hard work, and if he had any religion or dedication, it emerged from an inexhaustible reservoir of reassuring kindness, applied to the care of the sick and the worried, while teaching what he was doing to we followers who wanted, in some way, to emulate him.
Consider his life, then, as an many-featured exercise in SIMPLICITY. He didn’t appear to have any serious hobby or avocation, and for most of his many years, he had but ONE residence, ONE ambition, ONE route to his ONE office, ONE set of goals, ONE spouse, and military service aside, ONE employer. But for him, it was enough. If he ever wished for a different life, and I doubt that he did, he kept it secret.
His efforts for his flock were LEGENDARY, as atypical as they were astounding and the results, occasionally seemed miraculous: Consider THIS example: In 1964, one of his patients suffered a relapse of her illness and needed hospitalization. Ironically, it was just at a time when JBK was scheduled to deliver a lecture at a symposium in Rome. The patient, whom I later “inherited”, was an unmarried, middle-aged, deeply observant Catholic woman who attended mass daily and who worshiped Joe Kirsner with almost the same fervor as she did her religious Savior. She was understandably upset that “Dr. K” would be thousands of miles away during this seemingly critical period, even when he assured her that he would maintain contact with the staff looking after her in his absence.
But he had additional plans:
After arriving in Rome, he spoke to this symposium’s organizers and insisted on their arranging, on this patient’s behalf, a personal audience for JBK with The Pope, then Paul VI, nothing less. After listening to his hosts repeated declarations that this surely was not possible, he asserted, simply and directly, that the welfare of a single patient, his patient, meant far more than a medical meeting. THEY-GOT-HIS-POINT, and Chicago’s Joe Kirsner actually was granted a fifteen minute audience with St. Peter’s successor. So, “one on one” with the Pope, JBK related the story of his patient’s dilemma, adding the fact of her deep Catholicism, requesting that if it were at all possible, he hoped to return to Chicago bearing some article of Christian significance to her, enhanced further by His Holiness’s personal benediction.
After only a moment’s reflection, the Bishop of Rome summoned a young seminarian into the chamber by handclap, who left after receiving his instructions,
returning in moments with a small, intricately carved, dark cask of teak or ebony. The box contained an elegant, white lace square, handwoven by nuns at a convent somewhere in Flemish Belgium and meant to adorn the heads of pious Roman Catholic women at prayer. The Pope then applied the requisite sprinkles of holy water to this extraordinary gift; the cask was wrapped securely and sealed for authenticity with Vatican labels, and Joe Kirsner, bearing a briefcase, his “two-suiter”, and this just-acquired treasure, found a taxi outside St. Peter’s Square and headed to the Rome airport and his Alitalia flight back to Chicago.
And there’s this: His likely fatigue aside, JBK’s first stop AFTER O’Hare was not his home, but the hospital, carrying, along with his luggage, this important gift to his patient’s bedside, replete with all the significant details, Papal and otherwise. The now evaporated holy water was replaced by grateful tears and, not surprisingly, her symptoms disappeared in only DAYS, doubtless through this miraculous intercession and her doctor’s dedication.
Years later at Billings, she told me the story and brought her much-used headpiece for me to see at the Medicine 6 Clinic; I extracted the confirmatory details from JBK. “It wasn’t so difficult”, he said…. “just a small favor for a nice lady.”
WHAT A HEART; WHAT A GUY; WHAT A DOCTOR!
His reputation was no secret. Finishing my residency and just months before starting my GI training here, I had the job of coordinating mail applications for inpatient care received at Illinois Research Hospital. Some requests were plainly eccentric, but the one I relate this afternoon arrived in a wrinkled but stamped envelope, postmarked “Chicago” and addressed in an awkwardly PRINTED, clearly unsophisticated scrawl:
“To The Greatest Doctor in the World”—one simple line, no street address, city or state, like a hopeful child’s letter to Santa Claus at Christmastime.
But the memorable part was the envelope’s unsigned addendum, penciled by a different hand at an angle on the front of the envelope, surely by a Post Office employee. Offering its own opinion about quality in medical care, it read:
“Try Joe Kirsner, The University of Chicago, Illinois”. The address’s flawed ambiguity was how it got to me.
David Rubin, master of these ceremonies and friend, follower, and physician to ourbeloved teacher, has allotted eight minutes for we speakers. That’s very wise, for like many others here, I could relate JBK stories for eight hours, and then some.
I’ve already quoted E. B. White and Saul Bellow and shall conclude with a piece by Robertson Davies, a writer JBK and I liked and discussed more than once.
Here’s what he said:
“This is the Great Theatre of Life.
Admission is free, but the taxation is mortal.
You come when you can, and leave when you must.
The show is continuous.