Remarks from David T. Rubin, M.D.

Remarks at the Memorial Service for Joseph B. Kirsner, MD, PhD

We are here today to celebrate the life of a remarkable man.   Next Friday would have been his 103rd birthday.  We were blessed to have him in our lives for more than a Century.

I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Kirsner for 22 of his 103 years (I met him when he was already 80 years old).  In that time, I knew him in different roles, and came to love him and to understand him on many levels.

I knew him first as the grandson of one of his patients.  In that relationship, he was revered by my grandmother and our family as an expert in Crohn’s disease, as a healer, and as a master diagnostician. 

I knew him as a Professor of Medicine and researcher.  Someone who always asked the big questions, and never stopped challenging the status quo, but did so by informing his questions with the wisdom of experience from the history of medicine and previous lessons learned.

I knew him as a mentor.  Even when I was a naive first year medical student, I felt his gentle (and not so gentle) nudgings and guidance for my career.  He taught me that mentors create opportunities for their mentees and seek what’s best for them.  I loved that he sent personal notes to us about articles that we had written or that he sent us articles written by others that he thought would be of interest to us.  Many of my colleagues around the world have saved their hand-written notes from “JBK” congratulating them on their recent publication.  

I knew him as a fiercely loyal member of our great multi-disciplinary academic University.  He believed in what the University of Chicago stood for, and what it had become, and what it could be.  His level of personal integrity and responsibility was extraordinary.  He took it personally when the Medical Center or any one person within it didn’t provide the level of service to patients or the level of scholarship to our scientific and academic community that were at the highest standards.  A former University President told me about his frequent calls to her office to alert her to the needs of the institution and its successes or failings in what he believed was our mission and our obligation to the highest level of care. 

And, unique to a few others who are here in the audience today, I also knew him as a patient.  He was a keen observer of his own physiology and pathophysiology who was sometimes trapped in a physically aging body but with a very sharp mind.  I came to know how a great man like him coped with physical disability and his own mortality.   He did so by always having a goal (or goals) and sticking to routine; he was discouraged but not defeated by the ravages of age.

Dr. Kirsner was the embodiment of the term “doctor”, which many here know is translated from the Latin docere: "to teach". 

You have heard repeatedly today that Dr. Kirsner was an amazing teacher, in every sense of the word.  He taught several generations of trainees what it meant to care for the patient- at the bedside. 

One of the lessons I learned from Dr. Kirsner was what is required to be a great teacher and a great leader- that is to learn from those who preceded you.  Although Dr. Kirsner was a transformative role model to so many, he also looked to other role models to guide and inspire his own behaviors and aspirations.  His walls were covered with quotations that he found inspirational.  His bookshelves were filled with the writings of scholars and philosophers about the “care of the soul” and many aspects of humanism in medicine.

I learned how much he admired and sometimes compared himself to a “modern” Moses Maimonides. Maimonides was one of the foremost rabbinical philosophers in Jewish history and in the Medieval times, and a scholar, a rabbi and a physician and lived in Morocco and in Egypt.   Many here know of Dr. Kirsner’s relationship to Morocco and to King Hassan II.  We also appreciate Dr. Kirsner’s scholarship and approach to the patient, which certainly reflected many of Maimonides’ traits and precepts.  Of the 10 best known medical writings by Maimonides that have been translated from their original Arabic to English, they included one titled the Regimen of Health, a discourse on healthy living and the mind-body connection- something that we know Dr. Kirsner certainly studied and the importance of which he firmly believed.  And, to my surprise when I was preparing my remarks for today, Maimonides is also known for his Treatise on Hemorrhoids, which also discusses digestion and food!

As lofty as it may seem to compare Dr. Kirsner, our University of Chicago legend, to the scholar Maimonides, Dr. Kirsner also was a man, who at the end of his life was grounded in his own mortality and reflected on his role in the world, our University and our gastroenterology community.  I once asked him how he wanted to be remembered.  He said that he would like to be remembered as someone who tried to do the right thing, and to help people.  There is no doubt that we will remember him in that way.

Thanks to his supporters and very good friends, there are many concrete reminders of his impact on medicine, on the University, and on all of us that will remind us of his effect on this institution and on medicine.  His remarkable life journey is documented in his authorized biography by Jim Franklin.  The street in front of our medical center is known as the honorary “Joseph B. Kirsner Drive”.  And perhaps most impactful, his good friend and GIRF supporter Sy Taxman and his family have provided the support to create a living legacy in the form of an endowment for an annual “Joseph B. Kirsner advanced fellow” and an annual conference on the scientific advances in digestive diseases and the humanitarian care of patients.  The first of these conferences will occur at the time of Dr. Kirsner’s 104th birthday next September.  This remarkable gift provides us with the opportunity to incorporate Dr. Kirsner’s stories and his legacy in an annual living memorial, and to continue to embody our future colleagues and leaders with stories about Dr. Kirsner’s remarkable life. 

It’s been two months since his passing and I miss Dr. Kirsner.  When I am walking down the second floor hallway past his empty office, I miss being able to stop by and talk to him, like I did for the very first time 22 years ago this month.  I miss Dr. Kirsner when I walk home past his empty apartment in the Cloisters building a couple blocks from here.  And I miss Dr. Kirsner sitting in the front row of our research and clinical conferences, always ready to ask an insightful question, even when you thought he was asleep for most of the presentation. 

But when I don’t miss him at all is when I’m at the bedside of a patient.  Because he’s there with me, in my head directing the types of questions I ask and how I ask them, guiding my hand when I gently examine the abdomen, and especially, when I advocate for patients and care for them, and work to provide the comfort and hope that they need and that is so often absent in modern medical care.

It was the great medical icon William Osler who said

“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” 

Dr. Kirsner was certainly a great physician.  We were blessed to have him in our lives for so long.   His legacy is enormous.  And his mission will live on through us.