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Dr. Lawrence Kienle passes away but leaves a legacy for two

Dr. Lawrence Kienle, a man of towering generosity and who was passionate about patient-centered care, passed away on Friday at the age of 92. Dr. Kienle and his wife, Dr. Jane Witmer Kienle, have been instrumental in the emphasis on humanistic care that Penn State Hershey has become known for nationally and internationally.

The cover story of the December 2006 edition of Penn State Medicine magazine highlighted the legacy of Drs. Larry and Jane Kienle. The story has been republished below.

A Celebration of Life Ceremony will be held at noon on Monday, Feb. 8 in the Junker Auditorium on the Penn State Hershey campus.  Memorial contributions may be made to the Doctors Kienle Endowment for Humane Medicine, c/o Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, 500 University Drive, Hershey, PA 17033. Hoover Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.


Legacy for two

Originally published in Penn State Medicine magazine, December 2006, Volume 17, Issue 2

Lawrence F. Kienle, M.D., is a man of towering generosity with a simple prescription for living well. According to his own summation, he has many blessings—a lake at his doorstep stocked with “some good bass,” the ability at age 83 to hit a golf ball without pain, and the joy of partnering in the growing legacy he and his late wife, Jane Witmer Kienle, M.D., created through endowment of The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine.

Armed with the kind of spirit that refuses to bend with age, Kienle lives in the picturesque New Jersey Pine Barrens in a home he and his wife built forty-five years ago. She died in 1991, and he talks of her in the effortless way that goes beyond the pain of loss to the comfort of shared memories.

“Jane and I retired in 1978,” he recalls. “We had saved enough for our needs as we got older, and had no children, so we decided to do something worthwhile via philanthropy. We kept hearing stories about medical care becoming impersonal, about the absence of compassion, and I guess we figured that was a good starting place.”

Prompted to explain the trail leading them to Hershey and Penn State College of Medicine, Kienle shrugs a shoulder characteristically. “Motivation?” he asks, “I honestly can’t say. It’s a slam-dunk. It was just there.”

Kienle isn’t one who easily submits to the retrospection that comes with advancing years, especially when it comes to the Center. He’d rather talk about now and what lies ahead. Nevertheless, humanistic concerns, from the perspectives of both doctor and patient, were part of his life before they were incorporated within medical education. He graduated from Albany (NY) Medical College in 1946, when tuberculosis was prevalent, and he became one of several in his class who contracted the disease as a result of exposure on the wards. When he chose radiology as a specialty, colleagues chided that it wasn’t “real patient care.” However, he says he never looked at a fractured ankle without envisioning the patient whose life and livelihood were being impaired by the injury.

Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Ph.D., professor, Department of Humanities, and director, The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine, reports:  “the evolution toward humanities as a component of medical education came in response to managed care, advanced technology, and issues attendant to medical practice in the late twentieth century. The movement was generated largely by students who recognized the need for focus, not only on what the physician thinks, but on what the patient feels.”


During a 1985 meeting with medical school officials, the Kienles expressed interest in developing an expansive program that would reach students,
residents, faculty, volunteers, and medical personnel. When asked what it
was they hoped to accomplish, Larry Kienle answered that if they could
effectively reach at least 10 percent of that population, they would consider the effort a success.

“I think that’s when we all connected,” he says. “We realized we had the same goals, and with realistic expectations.” The Kienles had first proposed establishment of a chair for humane medicine. It seemed an appropriate addition to a school with the distinction of having the first Department of Humanities at any medical college. After some discussion, it was agreed that the initial grant be directed to the young, growing Center for Humanistic Medicine eventually named for both Kienles. In 1988, the couple established the Doctors Kienle Chair for Humane Medicine, currently held by James O. Ballard, M.D., professor of medicine. Through the years, Kienle grants have underwritten the Center’s primary support.

A collaborative program enriched by participation from several departments including The Kienle Center conducts lectures featuring national leaders. Humanism in Medicine awards are presented to those demonstrating community service and compassion in patient interactions. Wild Onions, the annual journal edited by medical students, features literary and artistic contributions of staff, students, patients, and families. Its pages reflect everything the Center embodies—the importance of balancing the often cold reality of treatment with warmth and understanding, the awareness of ethical and humane questions that need to be addressed, and the acceptance that many of those questions have no easy answers.

Kienle is more than a donor. He serves on the Center’s executive committee, and is passionate about the programs undertaken by the members. Hawkins calls him a constant source of wise counsel and innovative ideas.

“Larry’s insistence on the central role of compassion in medicine has helped keep the Center true to the vision of humane medical practice,” she says.

For his part, Kienle wishes more people understood the far-reaching impact of this kind of medical training. He talks of projects assisting students and residents with work in underserved communities, others exploring the ramifications of end-of-life issues, and those such as volunteers traveling to a Ugandan village to help children orphaned by AIDS.

Letters written to Kienle by present and former students document the influence of humanistic training on their medical careers. Randall D. Haight, M.D., (Jefferson City, Missouri), previous winner of a Drs. Kienle Center Humanitarian Award, who credits the Center’s impact on his career, writes that he prays for his patients, listens to their problems, empathizes as they struggle through hardships, and when necessary, fights for their rights. He concludes, “Being a physician is what I do, but being a humanitarian is who I am.”

Kienle treasures such a letter, as well he should. He says “That is the type of response we hoped the Center for Humanistic Medicine’s presence and activities would elicit. “That’s our legacy,” he says, “Jane’s and mine. May there be many other lives influenced now and in the future.”

  • By Rita Rooney



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