“Kenneth was interested in everything,” says Alexander’s mother Marilyn. When her son was four or five, “He would climb on his [father’s] lap and I remember Jack reading radiochemistry out loud to him.”
Once, a small telescope triggered a fascination for the stars and “his dad spent some cold nights outside with him,” says his mother. He also loved music, played the trombone, and as a teen, made frequent trips out of town to play with the local orchestra.
Jack Alexander was the first radiologist hired at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He was also head of medicine and surgery. Science, medicine, and the stories of interesting patients often worked their way into dinnertime conversation. It’s no wonder that Ken and two of his sisters have gone into medicine and the third is in special education.
“I decided I was going to do an MD/PhD my junior year of high school,” says Alexander. He had several choices for college, but “I grew up in Pullman. I was very much a small town boy.”
At WSU he studied biochemistry with D. Max Roundhill and worked in his lab. “It was a beautiful situation,” says Alexander. “The program was big enough to have access to cutting edge stuff, but small enough that I could have the attention as an undergraduate of a full professor.”
From Roundhill’s perspective, Alexander was clever and energetic. “He was bright enough and his instincts were good enough that I trusted him to do my lab work.”
He graduated from the honors program and had a choice of medical schools and fields.
“I grew up in an interesting time for infectious disease,” says Alexander. While he was in medical school at the University of Washington, the early cases of HIV and AIDS were appearing.
Alexander had started medical school with the goal of being an internist, but then he had a fascination for chemistry, and for infectious disease. He ultimately found his calling during his pediatric rotation. “I liked these doctors,” he says. “We had the same values.”
“My dad said pediatrics is very much like veterinary medicine,” he says. “You have non-verbal patients and very worried parents.”
As a medical student, he met his wife-to-be Michelle Buchholz, ’83 Nursing. The Alexanders now have two grown daughters and Buchholz is a teacher and practitioner at Rush University’s College of Nursing.
After medical school, Alexander completed a residency in pediatrics and infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School and then moved to Duke University for his postdoctoral work, eventually joining the faculty there before moving to Chicago.
He now performs research, teaches, runs clinics, and consults with other doctors. He has expanded the hospital’s HIV clinic to serve 100 families. And he has created a program for international adoptees. “We see children with health issues like a cleft palate or cerebral palsy,” as well as acute medical concerns like worms and tuberculosis.
Alexander is now working on an immunization program with Chicago Public Schools and the city’s health department to provide children with affordable vaccinations and the personnel to administer them. “If we can do it in Chicago, we can do it in Detroit or Seattle.”
Read about pediatric specialists advocating for vaccines in “A Dose of Reason.”