Dr. David Kipnis, 86; acclaimed physician, Wash. U leader

David M. Kipnis, M.D.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Dr. David Kipnis, widely praised as a physician scientist and for his leadership at the Washington University Medical School, as well as for his compassion and dedication to healing, died Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at his home in Clayton. He was 86, had undergone open-heart surgery some years ago and had been treated for Parkinson’s disease,

David Morris Kipnis was born in 1927 in Baltimore to European immigrants  Rubin Kipnis and Anna Meisen Kipnis. He worked for a time in the family’s shoe store. He attended Johns Hopkins University, from which he graduated at the age of 18, considered at the time to be too young to enter medical school. He joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He entered medical school at the University of Maryland and graduated in 1950.

Dr. Kipnis joined the staff of the Washington University School of Medicine and for 20 years headed the school’s largest department, internal medicine.  He was an accomplished researcher and was known for his discoveries regarding metabolism.  One of his discoveries, dealing with the incretin effect, led to the development of a new class of drugs used to treat people with diabetes.

An effective fundraiser for the medical school, Dr. Kipnis’ efforts resulted in a $100 million donation from Monsanto Co., under which the company funded research performed at the medical school. Dr. Kipnis also founded and directed the Clinical Research Center, the largest at the medical school.  He became physician-in-chief at Barnes Hospital, in charge of training thousands of residents.

Dr. Kipnis mentored scores of physicians during his long career. Among them was Kenneth Ludmerer, professor of medicine at the Washington University Medical School and author of the definitive history of the school. 

Ludmerer said Dr. Kipnis was instrumental in launching his career in medicine.

“Dr. Kipnis was the most notable physician, not just in the city of St. Louis or the state of Missouri, but in the entire Midwest,” Ludmerer told the Jewish Light. For 20 years, Kipnis chaired the Department of Medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital as well as at the Washington University School of Medicine.  

He was also an internationally prominent scientist who worked with Nobel Laureates Carl and Gerti Cori. He was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among  other honors. 

“He also made possible the careers of numerous individuals, and I am grateful to be among them,” Ludmerer said.  “He also actively supported Jewish medical causes,” including serving on the board of directors of Hadassah Medical Organization. 

A memorial service for Dr. Kipnis was held Sunday at the Ethical Society, where Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel officiated. 

“When I moved back to St. Louis to serve as a rabbi, one of the first things I had to do was learn how to get around in various hospitals,” Feder recalled in her remarks. “There was nowhere that confused me more than Barnes-Jewish, and I would frequently get lost amidst the various buildings, hallways and corridors.  However, I learned relatively quickly that all I needed to do was to find the painting of Dr. David Kipnis, wearing – as always – his gentle smile and famous bow ties.  Once I found that painting, I knew I was going in the right direction.

“It occurs to me today that Dr. Kipnis provided that sense of direction and purpose for many of us here.  He had the ability to put people on the right path, to give them the confidence that they were moving in the right direction and to give them the confidence to do it. 

“He also just really loved what he did.  The science, the problem solving, all of it was for the fun of it, and he passed that passion on to those around him. … Nobel Prize winners would regularly be dinner guests at the Kipnis home, but to the kids, to their friends, to those of us who were lucky enough to know him as a personal friend, he was just Dave. He didn’t have to overpower you with his presence.  And the accomplishment of which he was most proud was unquestionably his children and grandchildren, the families they created and the paths they’ve chosen for themselves.”

Dr. Kipnis’s wife of 59 years, Paula K. (Levin) Kipnis, died in 2012. Survivors include two daughters, Lynne Kipnis (Steven Rothman, M.D.) of Clayton and Laura Kipnis (Sidney Goldstein) of University City; a son, Robert Kipnis, M.D. (Nancy)  of Charlotte, N.C.; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Washington University School of Medicine for the Department of Medicine. They may be sent to Washington University, Attention:  Helen Z. Liu, 7425 Forsyth Boulevard, Suite 2100, St. Louis, Mo. 63105. Contributions also may be made to Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, 8215 Clayton Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63117, or to the charity of the donor’s choice.