A Centurion of Gastroenterology

A portrait of Joseph Kirsner outside Tuesday's Grand Rounds

A portrait of Joseph Kirsner outside his Grand Rounds lecture

It’s not every day you get to hear a lecture from a physician two weeks shy of his 100th birthday. But for yesterday’s Department of Medicine Grand Rounds at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the honored speaker was 99.96 years old (to be exact) and spent an hour recalling a career spanning an incredible 70+ years in the field.

Joseph B. Kirsner, affectionately known to the medical world as “GI Joe” (the GI stands for gastrointestinal, of course), came to the University of Chicago in 1936, the year Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and Gone With the Wind was first published. 73 years later, he remains a full professor at the University of Chicago, no longer seeing patients but working from his hospital office two days a week.

In May, Kirsner was honored during the Digestive Disease Week meeting held this year in Chicago, an annual gathering of doctors in the gastroenterology field where Kirsner is considered a giant. Tuesday was the University’s chance to pay tribute, and Kirsner received two standing ovations from a crowd wearing buttons reading “JBK 100.”

Titled Gastroenterology: A Look Back 1936-2009, Kirsner’s talk was a first-hand account of how disorders of the digestive system have been studied, diagnosed and treated over the last seven decades. For example, Kirsner talked about how the endoscope revolutionized his field…then talked about how Rudolph Schindler, co-inventor of the endoscope, came to Chicago and taught him how to use the device. The first endoscope was a rigid, steel tube that had to be threaded down a person’s mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach. “This was not an easy task,” Kirsner said. I’ll say.

Starting out as a resident at Woodlawn Hospital at a $25/month salary, Kirsner’s early career took a detour when he joined the U.S. Army during World War II after learning that his Ukranian grandparents had been killed by the Nazis. Deployed to a hospital in France, where he was assigned to the care of German prisoners of war and narrowly missed a rocket attack on the building. Later, he was transferred to the Japanese front, where he took care of civilians injured by the atomic bomb. Here’s some footage of Dr. Kirsner talking about his wartime experience:

Kirsner returned to the University of Chicago in the mid-1940’s and settled in for a long career of research and medicine, founding and co-founding several gastroenterology organizations that helped find research funding for clinicians and scientists in the growing field. With his colleagues in the Section of Gastroenterology, he threw himself into the challenge of finding causes for peptic ulcers and irritable bowel disease. After his first two post-war grant applications were rejected by the National Institutes of Health, he worked with the NIH to revise the grant review process to include more clinicians. And Kirsner founded or co-founded several groups to channel more funding to research into digestive system disorders, including the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation, still operating at the University today.

In his lecture, Kirsner emphasized that the primary motivation of his long career has been to help patients receive care for what were once considered to be untreatable diseases.

“These were people who were considered untreatable by other doctors, but we found a way to treat them, and we found every patient treatable in one way or another,” Kirsner said.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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