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.