Physician, Educator, Innovator
John Webster Kirklin didn’t need Alabama to make his reputation, but he gave generously to his adoptive home, helping to make it a renowned center of medical research. The Muncie, Indiana native showed exceptional potential even as a young man, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota and magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. He then refined his skill at the University of Pennsylvania and the Mayo Clinic before setting aside his personal priorities to serve as a neurosurgeon in the U. S. Army during World War II.
Returning to civilian life, Kirklin continued on his impressive professional trajectory. He began assisting in heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1950, and that experience inspired him to research the possibility of a safe heart-lung machine that would revolutionize that work. He succeeded and perfected techniques that saved the lives of those once considered beyond medical help. By 1966, Kirkland was the internationally celebrated chair of the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Surgery. Then he turned to Alabama.
At a time when many Americans saw little hope for progress in Alabama, Kirklin saw the potential for something new and wonderful in the field of medicine. He reorganized the Department of Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, created the Health Services Foundation in support of medical recruitment, research and teaching, and founded the outpatient clinic that bears his name.
With more than 700 scientific papers and the definitive textbook on cardiac surgery to his credit, John Webster Kirklin will long be remembered for his contributions to medical scholarship and education. The people whose lives he saved may recall his compassion and supreme surgical skill. Citizens of Alabama will remember him as the man who realized the state’s great promise and helped achieve it.