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Ira J. Kodner, MD

A Surgical Trailblazer

A good part of my career was helping people no one else cared to help.

Ira J. Kodner, MD, and James T. Kirk, the famous captain of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise, share a common calling to explore uncharted territory. But while Capt. Kirk is pure fiction, Dr. Kodner is the real thing. He is a major figure in the development of the specialty of colon and rectal surgery and in ethics education—both nationally and within Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

When asked where he gets his courage and drive, the intrepid Dr. Kodner replies: “I suppose my courage comes from my father who, at 19, got his parents and brothers out of Russia, while my values come from my mother.”

Indeed, he credits the hours he spent at his mother’s side, learning to embroider and garden, and watching her extraordinary kindness to others, that instilled in him the importance of compassion and caring for those in need.

The result is a long career of first-time positions that include being the founder and first chief of the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Washington University. He also held the Solon and Bettie Gershman Endowed Chair in Colon and Rectal Surgery from The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. Funding from the chair allowed Dr. Kodner to launch and carry out a number of innovative programs.

Among them was the creation of a unique curriculum in surgical ethics education at Washington University School of Medicine—a program that positioned the school as a national leader in the field. Another direct outcome of the ethics program was the creation, in 2005, of the palliative care service at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. In recent years, Dr. Kodner has been a champion for the efforts to build Evelyn’s House, the BJC Hospice facility that opened on the grounds of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital in 2017.

“All of these extra things—thinking about ethics issues, teaching students more intently—became possible because of the endowed chair,” Dr. Kodner says. “It supported me during a busy surgical career and allowed me to do these other things that I thought were special and very needed.”

Giving back is also very important to Dr. Kodner and he continues to be involved in numerous national and local organizations that seek to improve people’s lives. The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital is one of those organizations. Dr. Kodner joined the board of directors in 2016 and serves on the Philanthropy Committee.

"The work of the Foundation allows people to be innovative, to deviate from the old standard. It’s not just the financial support, it’s the feeling of empowerment to know the community is behind you,” Dr. Kodner says.

Dr. Kodner’s trailblazing accomplishments and community service have been recognized with many prestigious honors including the Foundation’s 2018 President’s Achievement Award.

“Recipients of the President’s Achievement Award are among the finest, most accomplished physicians in the world.They advance medical knowledge and continuously improve our practices, while delivering care in a compassionate, respectful, and responsive way,” says Bob Cannon, president of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and group president of BJC HealthCare. “Dr. Ira J. Kodner epitomizes all of this award’s criteria, and then some.”

Dr. Kodner’s acclaimed medical career started in the 1960s, when he was a student at Washington University School of Medicine. As the Vietnam War escalated,he joined the U.S. Army in 1967 as part of a program that paid for his final year of education and, in return, required him to serve for three years. He became a battalion surgeon in Germany for two years, ended up on the Surgical Service of the U.S. Army Hospital Berlin, and rose to the rank of Major.

After completing his Army service and finishing his general surgery residency at The Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, he received fellowship training under a highly-regarded colon and rectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. When Dr. Kodner and his wife, Barbara, returned to St. Louis with their three children, he joined a private surgical practice, under the mentorship of Stanley London, MD, and became one of the first board-certified colon and rectal surgeons in St. Louis.

“A good part of my career was helping people no one else cared to help,” he says. “We started something no one else wanted to do.”

In fact, his interest in colon and rectal surgery developed in response to the need to help patients with colostomies, ileostomies, or urinary conduits who were not being well served by the medical community.

He was later recruited to a full-time academic practice at Washington University to start and head the colon and rectal surgery service. Colon and rectal cancer was one of the first malignancies that could be predicted by genetic mutation.

This led Dr. Kodner to take on the challenge of ethically managing genetic predisposition to the disease.

Even when he was in his 60s, Dr. Kodner continued to blaze new trails. He completed a one-year fellowship in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago and went on to found and direct the Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Washington University from 2002 to 2010.

To ensure the continuation of the study of ethics in medicine and surgery, and to honor Dr. Kodner’s lifelong commitment to others, the Foundation recently created The Barbara and Ira J. Kodner MD Endowed Fund for Surgical Ethics. The fund also recognizes Barbara’s critical support of Ira and her nurturing of hundreds of students, residents, and surgical fellows. Gifts from the Eric P. and Evelyn E. Newman Foundation (Peggy and Andy Newman), Yvette and John Dubinsky, and Carol and Mark Vittert, initiated the fund. Others have also given, and the Foundation is committed to engaging even more philanthropy to advance education, research and advocacy in the field of surgical ethics.

“I’ve been the luckiest person in the world to get support for my ideas over the years. It allowed me to do innovative things and it totally changed my career track. I’m forever thankful for it.”

Live long and prosper, Dr. Kodner!