OBITUARY

Dr. Basil Isaac Hirschowitz

May 29, 1925January 19, 2013

The course of modern medicine took a dramatic change when Dr. Basil Isaac Hirschowitz and two colleagues created the first fully flexible fiberoptic endoscope in 1957. Dr. Hirschowitz, along with Larry Curtis and C. Wilbur Peters, developed a technique for coating and bundling hair-thin glass fibers in such a way as to allow viewing over long distances and around bends. This gave him an illuminated and unobstructed view inside hollow organs such as the esophagus, stomach and colon and the means for minimally invasive surgery. The invention, which revolutionized the practice of gastroenterology and provided the basis for optical fiber communication in multiple industries, is arguably one of the most important developments of the 20th century. The original instrument resides in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. Dr. Hirschowitz, who died on January 19, 2013 at age 87, received recognition and awards from organizations around the world, including a Nobel Prize nomination.

Much more than an inventor, Dr. Hirschowitz was a gifted and caring physician, a research scientist and a teacher. He dedicated his career to the study of physiology, pharmacology and diseases of the upper GI tract and published more than 350 papers, many related to ulcer disease. Much of his time was spent as a Professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, where he founded and served as director of the Division of Gastroenterology for 29 years. The Basil I. Hirschowitz Endowed Chair in Gastroenterology was established at UAB in 1997 and upon his retirement in 2008, he was awarded the University’s President’s Medal.

He received worldwide recognition for his contributions to medicine. He was honored by a Mastership in the American College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Medicine in England, and received an honorary Doctor of Medicine Degree from University of Götenborg, Sweden. Among his many awards were the Julius Friedenwald Medal from the American Gastroenterological Association, the Charles F. Kettering Prize presented by the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, and in the Spring of 2010, the Castle Connolly National Physician of the Year Award for Lifetime Achievement, which recognized Dr. Hirschowitz as a leader in health care whose research, skills and dedication have improved the lives of people throughout the world. Basil Isaac Hirschowitz was born in 1925 in Bethal, South Africa. He was the first son of the late Morris and Dorothy Hirschowitz, a progressive Jewish farming family who had fled the pogroms in Lithuania at the turn of the century. He excelled at school, and received his undergraduate degree at Witswatersrand University at age 18 and his graduate degree in medicine when he was 22. He continued his medical training in London under Sir John McMichael at Hammersmith Hospital, followed by studies in gastroenterology at the Central Middlesex Hospital under Sir Francis Avery Jones. In 1953, he moved to the United States where he continued his focus on gastroenterology, first at the University of Michigan then at Temple University in Philadelphia. In 1959 he joined an elite group of pioneer medical faculty being recruited to the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham. Their task was to develop the burgeoning medical school’s various specialties. In his capacity as Director, Dr. Hirschowitz founded the department of gastroenterology only two years after he and his associates had done their groundbreaking work on the fiberoptic endoscope. He spent the rest of his career at UAB, performing research, treating patients and, through his fellowship program, training several generations of promising gastroenterologists who would, in turn, become leaders in their field. Shortly after arriving in the United States, he met Barbara Louise Burns, an occupational therapist at the University of Michigan. They were married in Ann Arbor in 1958. He became a naturalized citizen in 1961 and made a permanent home in Birmingham, Alabama, where they raised their four children. The family traveled frequently, both to South Africa for family visits as well as to many other countries as part of his extensive lecture schedule. He was an avid photographer and a keen gardener, with a particular love for cultivating roses. He was a collector; of African art, geological specimens and stamps. In 1992, he was named a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society of London. But above and beyond all of these pursuits was his overriding passion for science. In one of his final addresses to a graduating class of medical students, he commented, “We who are leaving, envy you the opportunities that the rush of science is about to offer you. Defend it and make good use of it.” Dr. Hirschowitz is survived by his wife of fifty-five years, Barbara, his children David Hirschowitz, Kaaren Hirschowitz Engel, Dr. Edward Hirschowitz (Alison), Vanessa Hirschowitz (Nick Kouchoukos), and seven grandchildren - Zoe, Simon and Iris Engel; Maxwell, Sophie and Sydney Hirschowitz; and Alexander Kouchoukos. A funeral service will be held at Johns-Ridouts on Monday, January 21st at 2:00. Contributions can be made to: UAB; the Birmingham Museum of Art; the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Services

  • Funeral Service Monday, January 21, 2013
REMEMBERING

Dr. Basil Isaac Hirschowitz

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Lenora Ann Hall

December 11, 2013

I am so sorry to just learn of Dr. Hirschowitz's passing. He was my doctor from the age of 23 until his retirement. He was very dear to me. He saw me though several bouts of ulcerative colitis which he brought me though with flying colors. He was a great and compassionate man. He truly cared for his patients and we for him. Please know that he impacted and improved my life tremendously.

Judy Stewart Carpenter

September 1, 2013

My deepest sympathy to the family of one of the most important people in my life. He was my physician for thirty years. He saved my life.

April 12, 2013

Dr. Hirschowitz was an inspiration to all who trained under him. He made careers in endoscopy and the accomplishments so many of us have been able to achieve possible, to allow the lives of our patients to be improved, and to train others to carry on his legacy (Todd Baron, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN)

Wilson C. Wilhite, Jr., M.D.

January 23, 2013

My sympathy in the loss of a great man! I was a student of his in 1959 at the University of Alabama and experienced first hand his concern for a young bewildered medical student, late at night, attempting to calculate fluids and electrolye replacement for a patient of another physician. He volunteered to offer his help and was cordial as he did so. Respectfully, Wilson C. Wilhite, Jr., M.D. And he would never have dreamed I would become President of the American Society of Anesthesiologists and a Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Texas -- and that because of Dr. Basil. Thank you, Doctor!

Jamie Stewart

January 23, 2013

To: The family of my friend and doctor, I hope your many years of life with a very dedicated man were happy ones. I do believe that HE and Jean and the drug study they were doing on a new PIP drug,no details, saved my life. I had a stomach that wouldn't stop making acid, and as a disabled veteran using the VA's medical facility they asked Dr. "H" as we knew him to help me. He did, by placing me in that study I have no reservations, I would not be here to mourn his passing. There are thousands of people who never got the honor of knowing him as a doctor that played a part in their health. This gentle man was my friend, and he is missed. Good future to you all, as I am starting to babble. Love ya Dr "H"
Good bye. With all my love and affection, Jamie D. Stewart

Linnea and Bill Israel

January 23, 2013

May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow.

Lola Patterson

January 23, 2013

You were a great man and shared your knowledge with everyone. And most important treated the nurses with the most respect and they worked as a team. Will be greatly missed.

Iris Fitts

January 23, 2013

Dr. Hirschowitz was a gem of a man, kind, compassionate and caring. I worked with him from about 1980 until 1990 as Medical Staff Coordinator at UAB. He treated everyone with kindness and dignity, a great model of humility to all he interacted with on a daily basis. I last saw him at the McWane Center with his grandchildren. I loved and admired Dr. Hirschowitz so very much! He shared his wealth of knowledge with everyone he touched. May God bless and comfort your family, you will be greatly missed.

SHELLEY BERMAN

January 23, 2013

MAY YOUR SPIRIT LIVE ON FOR ETERNITY ... YOU WERE A WONDERFUL FRIEND AND DOCTOR, AND I OWE MY LIFE TO YOU....AS YOU SAVED IT SO MANY YEARS AGO. MY LOVE TO ALL THE HIRSCHOWITZ FAMILY.

January 23, 2013

MAY HE ALWAYS REST IN PEACE. HE WAS A HERO IN MY LIFE...AS HE SAVED MY LIFE IN 1981, DURING A FOUR WEEK BATTLE WITH THE DESEASE WHILE I WAS IN UAB HOSPITAL, ONLY SIX MONTHS AFTER I GAVE BIRTH TO MY OLDEST SON. HE WAS A FRIEND TO OUR FAMILY AND SERVED SO MANY SICK PEOPLE AND FRIENDS WITH SUCH TENDERNESS AND KINDNESS. I REMEMBER HIM EVERY DAY WHEN I THINK OF HOW HE SAVED ME FROM DEATH. IT IS WITH MUCH JOY AND SADNESS THAT I WISH HIS LOVELY WIFE AND FAMILY SWEET MEMORIES AND REMIND THEM OF HOW DEARLY HE WAS CARED FOR BY SO MANY PEOPLE HE KNEW AND MEDICALLY TREATED. MY LOVE TO ALL OF YOU.