Ira Kodner, MD, named emeritus professor
Dr. Ira Kodner with his portrait in the Harvey R. Butcher Jr., MD, Conference RoomA distinguished career entered a new chapter when colon and rectal surgeon Ira Kodner, MD, recently retired and was named professor emeritus.
Kodner, who held the Solon and Bettie Gershman Chair in Colon and Rectal Surgery, established the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Washington University and served as its first chief.
But he also played a major role in the development of the specialty of colon and rectal surgery and in ethics education – nationally and within Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Kodner grew up in University City and earned undergraduate and medical degrees from Washington University. In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated during Kodner’s fourth year in medical school, he enrolled in a program that would pay for his final year of education in exchange for three years of service in the U.S. Army. After completing his surgical internship at Jewish Hospital in 1968, he became a battalion surgeon in Germany. There, he convinced two officers he had met on a bus to transfer him to a Berlin hospital where famed microbiologists Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had once worked.
“One of them was complaining to the other, ‘What I need is a young surgeon who wants to work,’” recalled Kodner. “I said, ‘I’m your guy.’”
Upon his return to St. Louis in 1971, Kodner continued his general surgery residency at Jewish Hospital and was introduced to his future specialty. One evening, Sam Schneider, MD, a surgeon at the hospital, invited him to a meeting of the St. Louis Ostomy Association at Deaconess Hospital. At the time, surgeons created colostomies, ileostomies or urinary conduits for patients undergoing intestinal or urinary surgery, but there was no follow-up care.
“It’s always been my joy to do things that no one else was doing,” Kodner said. “We had a licensed practical nurse with an ileostomy, and she was so enthusiastic about helping people that she went to the Cleveland Clinic to be trained as an enterostomal therapist. With the permission of Dr. Arthur Baue, we opened an ostomy care clinic.”
Baue also made arrangements for Kodner to receive fellowship training under Rupert Turnbull, MD, a renowned colon and rectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. When Kodner came back to St. Louis to establish a private practice under Stanley London, MD, he was one of the first board-certified colon and rectal surgeons in St. Louis.
Advancing colon and rectal surgery at
Washington University and nationally
In 1980, after five years in a busy private practice, Kodner joined Robert Fry, MD, another Washington University School of Medicine graduate and fellowship-trained colon and rectal surgeon, to start a colon and rectal surgery fellowship at the university. It was one of the earliest such programs in the Midwest. Five years later, Department of Surgery Chairman Samuel A. Wells Jr., MD, recruited both surgeons to full-time academic practice at the university, and the colon and rectal surgery service was born.
As chief of the service, Kodner also recruited James W. Fleshman Jr., MD, and the faculty members immersed themselves in clinical research, published papers and worked to establish an academic reputation.
Kodner set out to establish colon and rectal surgery as part of every academic surgery program in the country, a goal that has been largely achieved. He also rose through the ranks of academic surgeons to become a director of the American Board of Surgery, and for six years, he represented his specialty on the board. This was followed by six-year terms for Fry and then Fleshman, the latter of whom later served as chief of the section at Washington University.
“From this small section at Washington University, we were the liaison for our specialty with academic surgery for 18 years, which put our section in a very prominent position nationally,” Kodner said.
Branching into ethics education
Familial colon and rectal cancer was one of the first malignancies that could be predicted by genetic mutation. In the 1970s, this led Kodner to establish a registry for patients with familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and other inherited colorectal cancers and to remove the colon in FAP patients as a preventive measure. Issues surrounding genetics later opened up a new avenue in his career: surgical ethics education.
After giving a presentation on genetics and cancer risk at an American College of Surgeons meeting in the early 2000s, Kodner was approached by Mark Siegler, MD, director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. He asked Kodner if he would be interested in a one-year fellowship in medical ethics.
For a year, Kodner made round-trip flights to and from Chicago every Wednesday to complete the fellowship. He went on to further promote surgical ethics education by leading the national Kamangar Surgery Residents Training Program in Medical Ethics, launched in collaboration with the American College of Surgeons; presenting “Pizza Rounds” with Washington University general surgery residents, in which ethical dilemmas were discussed over pizza; and working with fourth-year medical students to write on ethical topics for The Journal of Surgery.
Life as an emeritus
As an emeritus professor, Kodner still can be seen on the Medical Campus. He continues his work with medical students regarding ethical issues, and he enjoys time spent with his wife, Barbara; children, Beth, Molly and Charles; and grandchildren.
“My work in ethics has been one of the glorious, productive parts of my career, and it will continue to be so,” Kodner said.
Past President, American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery (1990-91)
Past President, American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (1997-98)
Director, American Board of Surgery (1987-1993)