Kenneth Polonsky, head of University of Chicago Medicine
University of Chicago Medicine's top official faces a challenging 2013
Personal: Lives near Millenium Park with wife, Lydia Polonsky, and three children, Tammy, Jonathan and Daniel. He has six grandchildren.
Kenneth Samuel Polonsky was born in February 1951, the first of three children of an orthopedic surgeon named Bernard — whom he called "a very determined person" — and Rebecca, a homemaker, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
He attended a public primary school, segregated by race under apartheid, and a private Jewish day high school.
As a boy, he was a confident student and insatiably curious, devouring books on history, particularly those that offered unvarnished perspectives on his native country, said his wife of 42 years, Lydia, who met Polonsky when both were around age 12.
Determined to gain an unbiased understanding of South Africa's policy of racial segregation, a teenage Polonsky bought university-level history books to supplement his government-approved texts.
"He was incredibly smart, and he had a very healthy disrespect for authority," Lydia Polonsky said. "He was rebellious."
Her husband demurred. "I was just interested in the truth," he said.
At his high school, it wasn't unusual for his liberal, anti-apartheid activist teachers to be investigated or arrested for espousing views that didn't conform with those of the government, Lydia Polonsky said.
"You always had that feeling you were being watched. It was very uncomfortable," she said. "We always knew we were going to leave."
Her husband doesn't talk much about his time in South Africa. He does offer, however, that apartheid produced a set of "circumstances that were intolerable."
Polonsky also was determined to forge a career in medical research. Such opportunities were few in South Africa, a developing country where the main priority at the time was to provide basic health care to a largely poor population.
After he graduated from medical school at the University of Witwatersrand, he applied for positions at dozens of medical schools in the U.S. but was turned down for nearly every one — including internships at two medical schools he'd later guide in major leadership roles, the U. of C. and Washington University in St. Louis.
"I always tell students and interns that it's easier to become the dean here than it is to become an intern," Polonsky joked.
He finally landed an internship at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, and in January 1976 uprooted his wife and 9-month-old daughter to move to a small Oak Park apartment overlooking a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The transition was not easy. Calls home to their families were $10 a minute. The apartment they could afford was meager. The winter was cold.
"We knew about the U.S. from movies, to be honest. It was gorgeous American kitchens; homes were beautiful. Everything seemed better," Lydia Polonsky said. "But when we arrived, it was such a shock."
After completing his residency in internal medicine at now-shuttered Michael Reese Hospital on the Near South Side, Polonsky was selected for a fellowship at the U. of C. in endocrinology.
Over the next 21 years, he rose steadily through the ranks, becoming chief of the endocrinology section and earning a named professorship. He authored or contributed to more than 180 published research papers, rising to become one of the pre-eminent diabetes researchers in the world.
It was also during his first stint at U. of C. that Polonsky met Dr. Graeme Bell, a fellow diabetes researcher who would become a longtime running partner and collaborator.
During daily runs, the two would devise scientific experiments and novel ways to approach problems in their research.