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Renowned gastroenterologist, pioneered treatment of inflammatory bowel disease

Doctor Joseph B. Kirsner 102 | submitted pho| Sun-Times

Doctor Joseph B. Kirsner, 102 | submitted photo | Sun-Times

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Updated: August 9, 2012 9:42AM

Few could match Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner’s resume.

In more than 60 years at the University of Chicago, he pioneered the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. He won every major award in gastroenterology — except the one named after him. And he published almost 800 scientific papers and a textbook that is 842 pages long and weighs 4.4 pounds.

But Dr. Kirsner, who died Saturday of kidney failure at 102, never let those pursuits diminish his focus on developing and maintaining strong doctor-patient bonds, former colleagues said.

“Even though he was an academic gastroenterologist, he treated patients like he was their family physician,” said Dr. James L. Franklin, who trained under Dr. Kirsner. “Patients were free to call him at home. His number was given out freely. His day did not end until everybody who had called him that day had been called back.”

Dr. Kirsner stopped seeing patients only seven years ago, at age 95.

Born in 1909 in Boston to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents, Dr. Kirsner finished medical school at Tufts University and took an entry-level faculty job at the University of Chicago in 1935. He soon specialized in developing new ways to help patients with such ailments as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Despite having a wife and a young child, Dr. Kirsner volunteered for duty in the U.S. Army’s medical corps in World War II, said Franklin, who authorized a 2009 biography of Dr. Kirsner titled GI Joe.

“He became aware that some relatives on his mother’s side perished in the Holocaust,” Franklin said. “That had a lot to do with why he enlisted.”

Dr. Kirsner served in both Europe and the Pacific, where he treated some prisoners of war who were hurt by the atomic blasts in Japan.

He returned from the war to train more than 200 gastroenterologists at the university and rose through the academic ranks. He was chief of gastroenterology and then the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine.

In a statement Saturday, the university hailed Dr. Kirsner for helping “transform the field of gastroenterology from an art . . . into a science.”

Even as he collected accolades, Dr. Kirsner bemoaned “the diminished sensitivity of physicians to patients.”

“Professional skills and technological advances notwithstanding, medicine also must renew its traditional humanitarian principles to best serve sick people,” he wrote in a 1992 article for the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Fifty years ago, together with patients, Dr. Kirsner established the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation. The foundation has raised nearly $30 million to support research at the university. Just a few days before Dr. Kirsner died at home in Chicago, the foundation announced a $2.5 million gift in his honor from the Taxman Family Foundation.

Dr. Kirsner met his wife, Minnie, when she was his patient at the old Woodlawn Hospital. They were married for 64 years, until Minnnie died in 1998.

He is survived by his son, Robert Kirsner; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned for later this summer, university officials said.

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