Joseph Kirsner, MD, PhD, to receive prestigious award

March 5, 1999

Joseph B. Kirsner, MD, PhD, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, has received the Distinguished Educator Award from the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). The award, established by the AGA to recognize an individual for achievements as an outstanding educator over a lifelong career, was one of the two major awards in his field that Dr. Kirsner had not yet received.

The other honor--for which he is not eligible--is the the American Digestive Health Foundation's top prize for excellence in clinical research--the Joseph B. Kirsner Award.

In six decades of teaching, Dr. Kirsner has trained more than 200 of the field's leading specialists, including 41 people who are currently full professors and 14 department chairs. He authored nearly 700 publications, including 15 books. His textbook on inflammatory bowel disease, now in its fifth edition, has been the standard work on the topic for 20 years. His history of gastroenterology combines rigorous scholarship with eyewitness accounts.

"Joe Kirsner has set the national standard for gastroenterology training," said Eugene Chang, MD, the Martin Boyer Professor of Medicine and Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Diseases Center at the University of Chicago. "He brought a new emphasis on clinical research to the field, but he also emphasized the importance of maintaining a personal, trusting relationship with each patient. Ultimately, Dr. Kirsner's success as a role model is what truly makes him a great educator."

Now approaching his 90th birthday, Dr. Kirsner came to the University of Chicago as an assistant in medicine in 1935, and--except for military service during World War II--has remained ever since.

In those 64 years, Dr. Kirsner has helped transform his specialty of gastroenterology from an art--in his words "speculative, impressionistic, anecdotal, almost mystical at times"--into a science. He helped found several professional societies, including the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

His persistence in seeking research funds for his developing field resulted in the creation of the General Medicine Study Section of the National Institutes of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases.

Dr. Kirsner decided to become a doctor when he was nine years old. The son of poor Russian immigrants, he held multiple part-time and summer jobs throughout his school years, then worked his way through Tufts University's six-year college-medical school program. He graduated near the top of his class in 1933 and came to Chicago in July 1933 to continue training as a general practitioner with an internship at Woodlawn Hospital and a salary of $25 a month.

He began attending lectures at the University of Chicago and was especially impressed by Walter 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, where "it was made very clear that future advancement depended on outstanding research," said Dr. Kirsner. "Before I knew it, I was enrolled in a PhD program," which he completed in 1942.

His early research involved peptic ulcers and the effects of antacids on stomach acid secretion and body chemistry. It led to one of the strangest and most productive doctor-patient relationships in history. A penniless, homeless young man, known to gastroenterologists as Edwin R., enrolled in one of Dr. Kirsner's research studies. He badly needed treatment. He also needed a job and place to live, so Dr. Kirsner kept him hospitalized for an entire year as a research subject and trained him as a technician.

"It would be difficult to gain approval for such an arrangement today," Dr. Kirsner acknowledges, even though none of the experiments posed any threat, "but it was acceptable to him and he helped me start some of my research. Everybody was happy."

In the late 1930s, Dr. Kirsner turned his attention to the inflammatory bowel diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Working initially with Palmer, Dr. Kirsner developed new methods to manage IBD patients. In the 1940s, he demonstrated that patients with even mild IBD lost a great deal of protein--a finding that placed new emphasis on the importance of nutrition. He developed animal models of IBD, demonstrated the influence of genetics, and recognized the increased risk of colon cancer in patients with IBD.

Dr. Kirsner also raised funds for GI studies nationwide. In 1962, a collection of his grateful patients formed the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation, which has provided enormous support for GI research at the University. In 1984, the foundation raised more than $2 million to construct the 17,000 square foot Joseph B. Kirsner Center for the Study of Digestive Diseases.

Despite his pivotal role as a researcher and fundraiser, Dr. Kirsner insists that leaving his name on a productive laboratory or a prestigious award is nice, but not half as important as his dealings with students and patients. "You can write a lot of papers and do a lot of studies," he said, "but I like to think that our best contribution has been the training of young men and women."

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