Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

GI Joe: The life and career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner

JBK at the front desk of the GI clinic, 1971.

Quote Start On September 21, 2009, Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner, University of Chicago Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, will celebrate his 100th birthday. In his centennial year, the American Gastroenterological Association Foundation for Digestive Health and Nutrition honored Dr. Kirsner with a celebratory dinner on May 29, 2009 as a part of the annual Digestive Disease Week hosted this year in Chicago at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.

Dr. Kirsner’s fascinating life story, notable contributions to the field of gastroenterology and inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) as well as his important teachings on patient care and the importance of the doctor-patient relationship are the subject of a recently published biography, GI Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner written by James L. Franklin, M.D. Dr. Franklin received his training in gastroenterology in Dr. Kirsner’s fellowship program at the University of Chicago and taught and practiced gastroenterology at Rush University Medical Center until 2003. He is currently the president of the Chicago Society for the History of Medicine and the Humanities and an editor of the Hektoen International Journal.

Reprinted below is the preface from GI Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner, published in 2009 by The University of Chicago Department of Medicine / Section of Gastroenterology. The preface captures an overview of the importance of Dr. Kirsner’s career in medicine. The biography includes a foreword written by Dr. James L. Madara, Dean of the Biological Sciences of the University of Chicago and an Envoi written by Dr. Kirsner, A Brief Look Back and Thoughts on the Future. The book is in hardcover, 315 pages and includes a glossy photo gallery and name index. (The biography may be ordered through The Chicago Distribution Center online or at 773-702-7000.) Quote End



Reprinted from the preface of GI Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner, (The University of Chicago Department of Medicine / Section of Gastroenterology, 2009).

This book tells the story of the life and career of one of the great physicians of the 20th century. It is a story that spans most of the last century and now extends well into the first decade of the current century. The career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner has been distinguished by his humanism and accomplishments in the field of patient care, medical education, medical research, and philanthropy. The 20th century has been characterized by an exponential growth in scientific and technological progress, which was translated into the “scientification” of medicine.1 Dr. Kirsner remained on the crest of these advances; and while he never lost his sensitivity to the needs of the patient, he made outstanding contributions to his chosen field of gastroenterology in the clinical care of patients and in basic medical research. He played a major role as one of the leaders responsible for establishing gastroenterology as an important subspecialty of internal medicine, and he also participated in the development of the national and international societies that today represent the field of digestive diseases. Readers of this book will see that he has had a major impact on medical education in the fields of gastroenterology and internal medicine, both by furthering our knowledge of disease and by advocating for the highest standards of excellence and compassion in the care of the patient.

JBK, then chief of staff, at a patient’s bedside, 1975.

Dr. Kirsner began his professional career with the strong desire to care for the individual patient. Over the years, the doctor-patient relationship became the cornerstone of his career. Through fortuitous and felicitous circumstances, he found his way to a great university, the University of Chicago. There his vision was expanded to encompass the many possibilities of medical research and the importance of continuing medical education. Shortly after arriving at Billings Hospital in 1935, he recognized, in the person of Walter Lincoln Palmer, M.D., Ph.D., the attributes he wanted to develop in himself as a physician. In 1927 Dr. Palmer had been appointed to head the first academic section of gastroenterology of the newly formed medical school, patterned after the Flexner-Rockefeller model for medical education, which was blossoming at the recently constructed Billings Hospital on the Midway.2 Dr. Palmer introduced Dr. Kirsner to the relatively new and not fully recognized field of gastroenterology and became his model for excellence in patient care, for being an academic physician, and for academic achievement. Dr. Palmer and the exciting environment of the new medical school provided the stimulus for him to become involved in medical research. The requirements needed to accomplish credible laboratory-based research led Dr. Kirsner to pursue his doctorate degree in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago. This background would lead him to make his own contribution to our understanding of the immune mechanisms of inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Through his exposure to Dr. Palmer and the intellectual environment of the university, his horizons were expanded, and he sought a role in national and eventually international medical societies. He would come to found five important national societies in the field of gastroenterology and would play a leadership role in already-existing societies of gastroenterology and internal medicine.

JBK reviewing a case of inflammatory bowel disease, 1968.

His accomplishments in the field of medical education are manifest through the innumerable physicians whose lives and careers he has influenced. These include students, interns, and residents at the University of Chicago who were exposed to his teaching, irrespective of the field of medicine they eventually entered. His impact on physicians in training was also felt at the numerous universities where over his long career he has been invited to speak as an honored lecturer or visiting professor. As the leading member of the nationally recognized Section of Gastroenterology at the University of Chicago, he has attracted more than 200 physicians from all parts of the United States and from other countries throughout the world who have come to Chicago to receive their training in gastroenterology under his guidance. These gastroenterologists, who are his most direct medical progeny, have made distinguished contributions in communities throughout the United States and abroad. Among them are many whom he inspired and guided to pursue the three goals of the academic physician: excellence in patient care, medical research, and medical education.

As a true medical scholar, he has made a distinguished and impressive contribution to the medical literature through the hundreds of articles he has authored or coauthored, and through the many chapters that he has written for major medical textbooks on the care of the patient. He has been the author and editor of major textbooks in the field of gastroenterology, in particular his Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. During his long and extraordinary career, he has participated, organized, and contributed to literally hundreds of national and international meetings and symposia promoting and disseminating knowledge in the area of clinical care and research in gastroenterology.

In the 1950s his commitment to medical research led him into a leadership role in the National Institutes of Health, where he would serve over a period of two decades in guiding the funding of research in the area of digestive diseases. His belief in the importance of medical research as critical to the advancement of patient care led him to found the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation of Chicago (GIRF), to play a major role in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, and to serve for approximately fifty years as a medical consultant to the Cancer Research Foundation of the University of Chicago. His loyalty to the University of Chicago, to the care of the patient, and to the importance of medical research has made him an inspirational spokesman for major philanthropic ventures at the university.

Battle ready. World War II, 1944.

This is the story of a man who began life as the son of immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood in the East End of Boston, and of how he made the most of every opportunity that life offered him. Thanks to his desire to be the very best and to his own extraordinary hard work, he accomplished the goals he set for himself and still kept his compassion for his patients and an enduring dedication to helping the sick. Throughout his celebrated career, he has always retained his personal warmth and openness with his colleagues and is beloved by the institution he has served for over seven decades. At the age of 98, he remains active and involved in the activities of the Section of Gastroenterology at the University of Chicago, the affairs of the university, and the progress being made in the field of gastroenterology. He remains committed to the welfare of his family and a wide circle of friends. As a physician, he served his country during World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters of war. He has served his country as an ad hoc ambassador for America and the medical profession through his friendship and care over a 20-year period of the late king of Morocco, Hassan II, members of his family, and many other patients from that country who sought his help.

The physician in the 21st century is the guardian of unprecedented scientific and technological knowledge in his quest to fight disease and promote the well-being of his patients. At a time when the physician is under ever-increasing public scrutiny, these very tools threaten to destabilize and diminish the doctor-patient relationship. The challenge for the physician is to remain abreast of all these advances while at the same time retaining the confidence of patients and responsiveness to their needs. The life and career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner serves as an inspiration to all physicians in the field of medicine, those who would aspire to the calling of a career in academic medicine, and those involved in the field of medical education. This is the story of how all this was accomplished, in the words of one of his close colleagues, “with eloquence, grace and persuasion.”3



  1. This term was used by JBK in the title of his October 7, 1994, George Brohee Lecture at the 10th World Congress of Gastroenterology in Los Angeles: “The Scientification of Gastroenterology during the 20th Century.”
  2. For an overview of the Flexner report on medical education published by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910, see Coke M et al., “American medical education 100 years after the Flexner report,” New England Journal of Medicine 355:1339-44, 2006.
  3. Personal communication from Dr. Morton F. Arnsdorf, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago, to JBK, December 5, 2006.



JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and Associate Professor Emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He is also a member of our Editorial Board and serves as the President of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 1, Issue 4 – Summer 2009
Spring 2009  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews  |  Chicago Medicine

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