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Kirsner Today

MEDILL/Elizabeth Brandon

Dr. Joseph Kirsner in his home office in Hyde Park, a stone's throw from University of Chicago where he has practiced medicine since 1936.

He's 100, he's a doctor, and he still goes to work: Joseph Kirsner's first 100 years

by Elizabeth Brandon
Feb 02, 2010

Kirsner Childhood

Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Kirsner, reproduced in James Franklin's "G.I. Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner"

Dr. Joseph Kirsner, at age 11 or 12, with siblings, early 1920s.

Kirsner in Lab

Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Kirsner, reproduced in James Franklin's "G.I. Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner"

Dr. Joseph Kirsner, already a physician, was working toward his PhD in 1936.

Kirsner war

Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Kirsner, reproduced in James Franklin's "G.I. Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner"

Dr. Joseph Kirsner serving with the army during World War II, 1944.

When he started at the University of Chicago as a 26-year-old medical assistant in 1936, Dr. Joseph Kirsner could offer no antibiotics, no polio vaccines, no CT scans and few options to treat stomach disorders.

He helped treat Holocaust survivors after World War II, treated royalty and improved the care for digestive disorders over his long career.

Kirsner may not have seen it all, but he has seen more than most of you. Officially “retired” from the University of Chicago, the 100-year-old physician and gastroentorologist still goes to the office twice a week.

These days, his commute is limited mostly to the office and his home just a couple of blocks away in Hyde Park, but his mind constantly travels.

Sitting in his office, gold-wire glasses framing his face, he pats the surface of his desk when he wishes to stress a point. Kirsner’s mantra: “Have a goal, a worthwhile goal, do something good every day for somebody and work.”

One of five children whose colds and flu frequently brought the family doctor to their Boston home, Kirsner wanted to become a doctor by age nine.

“I was so impressed by the white uniforms and the powerful presence of the nurses and the doctors,” Kirsner said. “So I decided early on that was something to think about.”

His medical career has centered on gastroenterology, a field that focuses on the digestive system and related disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Kirsner is recognized as a leading authority on the subject.

“I remember a conference we had one time on a very complicated patient, showing X-rays,” said Dr. Marshall Sparberg, professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“He was sitting across the room, must have been 20 feet away, and everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong with the X-ray, and of course he made the diagnosis sitting from 20 feet away.”

Kirsner didn’t even hear about gastroenterology until the mid-1930s when he met Dr. Walter Palmer, then the chief of gastroenterology at the University of Chicago, whose emphasis on patient care continues to influence Kirsner.

“I think we must not forget the whole person,” Kirsner said, “I don’t think we can think of people as a bowel, I don’t think that we can disassociate or dissect the person.”

January 1936 marked a watershed event in Kirsner’s career, when a 45-year-old woman came into the hospital with ulcerative colitis. Without access to treatments such as antibiotics and steroids, all the doctors could do was give her fluids, and she died.

“That was the determining event that got me interested in IBD, and I spent the rest of my life studying that disease,” Kirsner said. “And I got involved in the basic sciences of the biology of inflammation, immunology, microbiology.”

Kirsner’s medical experience has extended beyond the city limits of Chicago as well as the U.S. He enlisted and fought with the army in Europe during World War II, also serving as an army physician. Doctors at Liege University in Belgium consulted with him on how to properly re-nourish Holocaust survivors.

Kirsner also served as a consulting physician to the king of Morocco from 1975 to 1998 andtraveled to North Africa dozens of times.

Throughout his more active years as a gastroenterologist, “Morning, noon and night he lived his medical profession,” said Dr. James Franklin, associate professor emeritus at Rush University and author of Kirsner’s biography “G.I. Joe: The Life and Career of Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner.”

Kirsner’s career includes researching inflammatory bowel disease, serving as chair of the American Gastroenterological Association as well as authoring or co-authoring more than 750 scientific papers primarily focused on digestive disease.

“He loves to teach, he loves to learn new things, he really is exemplary in that manner,” Franklin said.

“If you were to engage in a question – clinical question or research question, I think he was somebody that wanted to come up with the answer,” said Dr. Terrence Barrett, professor and chief of gastroenterology at Feinberg. “He didn’t care if somebody else felt that it was something different, if he thought it was a different way from what was being practiced.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, you still can find Kirsner in his office at University of Chicago, where he dons his white coat, responding to letters and consulting with colleagues. He hasn’t routinely seen patients since he was 90 and misses that part of his career, though.

“I recognize it as the passage of time, said Kirsner. “I feel more and more isolated as my friends and colleagues die off, and I realize that I don’t have too many more years ahead of me.”

Past the 100-year mark and continuing his work, Kirsner is charging the medical community with achieving a balance between developments made and emphasis on patient care.

“I think the challenge for the future is to keep the personality and the personal element in medicine and not forget it amidst all the technology that is available today,” Kirsner said.