Obituary: Karl, nationally renowned internist

Michael M. Karl, M.D., widely recognized locally and nationally as one of the country’s outstanding general internists, died Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006, at his home in Richmond Heights, Mo. He was 91.

Karl, professor of clinical medicine, was co-founder with I. Jerome Flance, M.D., of the Maryland Medical Group, where he practiced medicine in St. Louis for almost 50 years. He introduced Missouri’s first needle biopsy of the liver in 1946.

Michael Karl
Michael Karl

Karl was one of few general internists to become a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a master of the American College of Physicians (ACP), governor of the ACP for the State of Missouri and received the ACP Laureate Award in 1988.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Karl to the national advisory committee of the White House Conference on the Family from 1978-1980, where he was among the first to call for family leave protections for working parents. Active in national health policy and medical education, he worked for the establishment of national health insurance for all people regardless of their capacity to pay. In St. Louis, he was the co-organizer of one of the first health services for the poor, the Jeff-Vander-Lou Medical Clinic.

Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine, called Karl “one of the most important figures in medicine over the past 50 years.”

He was “the finest physician and greatest human being I have ever known,” said Kenneth M. Ludmerer, M.D., professor of medicine and of history. “He cared deeply about people and the world we live in. He was a living embodiment of the finest ideals of medicine.”

Chancellor Emeritus and Life Trustee William H. Danforth, M.D., said, “Mike Karl was my teacher. He was beloved and respected by colleagues and patients alike. He was ‘the physician’s physician’ — the person we fellow physicians called on to care for our loved ones.”

Karl was “a giant in the medical community of St. Louis,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Department of Internal Medicine and professor of cell biology and physiology. “He achieved great distinction as a master clinician. Despite all the recognition he received locally and nationally, he remained modest and never lost sight of the fact that the primary role of the physician is to provide the highest quality of care to patients.”

Karl repeatedly was honored for his contributions to medicine. He was named Most Distinguished Internist by the Osler Society in 1964 and honored with the Ralph O. Claypoole Sr. Memorial Award for Distinguished Practice in Internal Medicine in 1990.

He was proudest, however, of his numerous teaching awards. Karl was known as an outstanding teacher with the highest ethical standards. “He led and inspired a generation of young doctors by his example,” said Philip E. Cryer, M.D., the Irene E. and Michael M. Karl Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the medical school.

Karl was born in 1915 in Milwaukee. In 1938, he graduated summa cum laude in medicine at the University of Louisville. In 1941, Karl married his high-school sweetheart, Irene E. Karl, Ph.D., who became one of the first female biochemists in the United States. She died in July.

The Karls were the first married couple at WUSTL to be honored with a named professorship, which was set up in 1983 by gifts from friends and patients. The Michael and Irene Karl Lectureship, part of the Masters in Medicine series, also honors them.

In recognition of Karl’s well-known love of reading, a Michael M. Karl Book Award is given annually at the American College of Physicians and at the medical school commencement. The Flance-Karl Award also is presented by the American Surgical Association to a surgeon in the United States who has made a seminal contribution in basic laboratory research.

A philanthropist active in the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a longtime supporter of the arts and a promoter of tolerance, Karl was given the National Recognition Award of the Year by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1985.

Karl is survived by his two daughters, Bonnie Karl Staffier and Terry Karl; a sister, Minnie Friedman of Greenwich, Conn.; and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Michael M. Karl Fund for Interest Free Student Loans at the School of Medicine, 660 South Euclid, St. Louis, Mo., 63110.