Jewish values guide medical ethics expert

Ira J. Kodner, M.D.


You may know that Dr. Ira J. Kodner founded the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. You may know that he was named Physician of the Year by the St. Louis Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. You may know that he received the American Cancer Society’s award for leadership and served as past president of the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery.

Did you know that Kodner, 69, is a nationally recognized expert on medical ethics?

He is. Kodner is a consultant and co-author for the America College of Surgeons’ curriculum for teaching ethics to residents; and he is frequently interviewed by the national media on ethics issues.

Born in Kentucky and brought up in St. Louis, Kodner earned his medical degrees at Washington University. After his residency in surgery and three years serving in the Army, he trained in colon and rectal surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. Kodner returned to St. Louis in 1975 to join a private practice and to join the faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine, where he helped build the renowned colon and rectal surgery program.

Kodner made time recently to talk about his work.

What drew you to a career in medicine?

I’ve always liked science. When I was in high school in University City, I worked at the soda fountain at the Glaser Drugstore on Big Bend. A surgeon who ate lunch at the drugstore told me that I should study whatever I wanted in college and then apply to medical school if that interested me.

And you followed his advice?

I did. At first I was excited about working at Monsanto as a chemist, but at some point I decided if I had skills in science, I could apply them to human beings.

What happened next?

During my residency at Jewish Hospital, I went with a senior surgeon to a meeting of the St. Louis Ostomy Association, held at Deaconess Hospital. There I met people with ileostomies and colostomies, people who could not get the equipment or the specialty nursing care they needed.

Twenty years ago, you were asked to teach a class on dealing with sick people and their families. Today, you teach surgical medical ethics to fourth-year students and help get their papers published in the journal Surgery.

What are the topics of some of those papers?

When a medical student was in Afghanistan, the Taliban brought in a prisoner they said was guilty and they told the surgeon to cut off the man’s leg. Other topics have included conflicts of interest in the operating room in regard to orthopedic prostheses, patients who refuse blood transfusions for religious reasons, sterilization of mentally disabled teens and withdrawal of care.

What are the right answers?

There is never one correct answer. The challenge is to recognize these thorny, knotty issues are ethical issues and that doctors may make wrong decisions if they don’t know the principles involved.

In 2004, you were appointed director of the Washington University Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, a unique program that lost funding in June 2010. How is the work continuing?

We have moved a lot of the programs into the Washington University Department of Surgery and have continued to take a leadership position in this country for educating surgical residents on ethical issues.

Before medical ethics were standardized, how did doctors know how to behave?

Most often, we got it from our mothers or from our mentors in surgery.

What do you like best about your work?

Most gratifying for me, of course, is helping sick people in need. In addition, relative to my study of surgical ethics, is to teach and to write. Plus, I have always loved to do things that haven’t been done before.

What in Judaism has guided your work or your life?

Everything. My value system of honesty and concern for others is based on my understanding of Judaism and on my parents’ values.

HealthWatch -Ira J. Kodner, M.D.

WORK: Surgeon, professor of surgery and medical ethics at Washington University School of Medicine

HOME: Frontenac

FAMILY: Married since 1967 to Barbara, Olivette historian and author; three children and two grandchildren

HOBBIES: Photography, cooking, and growing orchids, something Kodner has done for 50 years