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Joseph B Kirsner (Dr Joe to his patients) was a Zeus among the gods of gastroenterology and was almost immortal, living to the age of nearly 103. As our colleague Dr Eugene Chang stated, ‘he was here (at the University of Chicago) for two lifetimes’. To say that Dr Kirsner devoted his life to medicine is an understatement and is an insufficient description of the depth and breadth of his 75-year commitment to his patients, students, and colleagues throughout the world. Dr Kirsner had a remarkably productive and fulfilled career, and in fact he continued to serve and represent the GI Section and Department of Medicine until the last weeks of his life. He saw patients until the age of 95 years and what could be considered the culmination of his academic life occurred at the age of 100 years, when he stood to give a 1-hour Department of Medicine Grand Rounds on the history of gastroenterology, which earned a prolonged ovation by the standing room–only crowd of fellow faculty, housestaff, and students.
The oldest of five children, Joseph Barnett Kirsner was born in Boston on 21 September 1909, to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had immigrated to the USA. He grew up in Boston's East End neighbourhood, a foothold for recent immigrants. Throughout his adolescence, Kirsner held multiple jobs, delivering newspapers, stocking a grocery store, and working as a library clerk. He then worked his way through a 6-year programme at Tufts University that combined college and medical school. Reflecting on his parents’ difficult lives, he commented that he chose a career in medicine and derived his work ethic ‘to make them proud’.
He entered medical school in 1929 and graduated in 1933. Planning a career as a general practitioner, he …