John Webster Kirklin


Honorary Degree (1983)
Doctor of Science
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: John William Ryan


The life and career of Dr. John Webster Kirklin, internationally renowned cardiovascular surgeon, began in Muncie, Indiana, where his father, a graduate of the Indiana University School of Medicine, practiced. Dr. Kirklin, born August 5, 1917, in Muncie, attended the University of Minnesota and Harvard Medical School, graduating magna cum laude. After interning at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to the Mayo Clinic for a residency in surgery in April 1943. In mid-1944 at the peak of World War II, he was inducted into the Army where he trained in and practiced military neurosurgery until August 1946. He returned to the Mayo Clinic and completed his surgical residency there in October 1950. After an assistant residency in surgery at Children's Hospital in Boston, he returned to the Mayo Clinic and its Graduate School of Medicine where he rose through the ranks to Professor of Surgery, Chairman of the Department of Surgery and member of the Board of Governors.

In 1966, Dr. Kirklin accepted a position at the University of Alabama (Birmingham) as the Fay Fletcher Kerner Professor of Surgery and director of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. Dr. Kirklin started the UAB's Surgeon Assistant (SA) Training Program, the nation's first formal educational program to train surgeon assistants, in 1967. He recruited his wife, Dr. Margaret Kirklin, to be the program's first Academic Director.

Dr. Kirklin remained Chairman of the Department of Surgery until 1982. He continued his cardiovascular surgery practice, as Director of that Division, until 1989. Afterward he continued as editor of The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, directed several multi-institutional studies on various cardiac procedures, and came to work early every morning. He produced another edition of his 2-volume text: "Cardiac Surgery: Morphology, Diagnostic Criteria, Natural History, Techniques, Results, and Indications," which came out recently (early 2000s) in a third edition authored primarily by surgeons trained by him at UAB.

Dr. Kirklin significantly advanced the knowledge of the treatment and the prevention of cardiovascular disease. His practice and teaching were at the leading edge of the surgical therapy for heart disease. He discovered and presented to his profession, solutions to the problems in the surgical repair of congenital heart lesions, valve replacement, and myocardial preservation during surgery and post-operative care. His laboratory breakthroughs and his skill in the restoration of health to his patients served as an inspiration to his students and colleagues throughout the world.

In addition to his commitment to research, teaching, and the care of patients, Dr. Kirklin served such organizations as the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. He also contributed to the editorial boards of most of the professional journals dealing with cardiovascular disease. He wrote and co-edited a standard textbook in cardiac surgery and published numerous articles.

A member of most of the professional organizations in his discipline, Dr. Kirklin served as president of the American Association of Thoracic Surgery and vice president and member of the Board of Governors of the American College of Cardiology. His international reputation was reflected by his association with cardiovascular surgical organizations in Australia, Ireland, Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Mexico and France.

Among many honors, Dr. Kirklin received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Munich (Germany), 1961; Doctor of Science, Hamline University, 1966; Doctor of Science, University of Alabama, 1978.

Dr. Kirklin combined his great technical skills with the pursuit of knowledge in the laboratory. His effectiveness as a teacher and physician made him a model academician. Thousands of children and adults stricken with cardiovascular disease now live long, productive lives because of the contributions of this eminent scientist and surgeon.

Dr. Kirklin died on April 21, 2004.