Lives of the fellows

William Burns

b.15 October 1909 d.15 March 2004
CBE(1966) BSc Aberdeen(1932) MB ChB(1935) DSc(1944) FRCP(1973)

William Burns laid the foundations for what might be termed occupational audiological medicine: he is best remembered for the studies he undertook with D W Robinson in the 1960s on the effect of industrial noise on the hearing of workers.

William was born in Lamlash, on the Isle of Arran. His father, Charles Burns, was a doctor, while his mother, Mary née Sillars, had been a primary schoolteacher. William’s early childhood was spent in Newmilns, a small manufacturing town about 20 miles south of Glasgow. On the outbreak of the First World War, the family moved to the somewhat larger Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland, about 15 miles south of Aberdeen. It was there that William received his high school education (at Mackie Academy).

In 2000, four years before he died, William wrote about his life in A Scottish family story (Egham, Surrey), which he co-wrote with his wife, Margaret. While there are numerous images of family members in the book, there are nearly as many photographs of aircraft, cars, locomotives and ships. The front cover shows a Clyde smack, owned and operated by William’s maternal grandfather. Throughout his life, William had an interest in mechanical engineering and had planned to study for a BSc degree in naval architecture. But William’s father sought the advice of Sir John Biles, Glasgow’s professor of naval architecture, who warned that at the time (1927) prospects in shipbuilding were so bad that he could not recommend such a career. On the advice of his parents, William settled for medicine, with the consolation that, as he says in his book, “…it was an honourable and useful profession.” He became a student at Aberdeen University, graduating in physiology in 1932 and in medicine in 1935, with distinctions in anatomy and physiology, equipping him with the scientific bases for his life’s work.

From the very beginnings he was fully aware of the limitations and inadequacies of contemporary medical practice. Like Archie Cochrane [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.95], he saw the need to tackle this all pervasive problem by rigorous application of the scientific method. However, unlike Archie, he did not restrict himself to epidemiological methods; indeed these were employed only in the second half of his professional career. Initially, William saw physiology as the science that was the key to improving the then unsatisfactory state of clinical medicine. The scientific medicine that William then envisaged was clearly a mechanism-based medicine in the spirit of Harvey. William’s attachment to physiology was such that even as an undergraduate he was conducting metabolic studies with his physiology professor. It was inevitable that, after qualifying in medicine, William would be invited to join the staff of Aberdeen University’s physiology department. The research that he conducted at Aberdeen over the three-year period prior to graduating in medicine and the seven years afterwards was of such a standard that it gained him a DSc degree.

In 1942 William moved to the Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington. He continued working in the Royal Naval Scientific Service after the cessation of hostilities, finally finishing as head of the Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory. He then returned to academia. In 1947 the University of London appointed him to its first chair of physiology at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, and he turned his attention to audiology.

In 1962, he was commissioned by the former Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to look at the effect of industrial noise on hearing. The results of the investigation were published in 1970 as Hearing and noise in industry (London, HMSO). In 1968 William published the first edition of his Noise and man (London, John Murray). Publication of the second edition, in 1973, followed the analysis of the Medical Research Council/National Physical Laboratory epidemiological study of noise and hearing in industry. Its publication coincided with that of the 1973 Government report recognising occupational noise-induced hearing loss as a compensable occupational disease. The two editions of Noise and man provided the best single-authored texts on the subject at the relevant times - and, some would add, since. The clinical importance of this area of medicine, and of William’s contributions to it, was duly recognised by his appointment as honorary consultant otologist to the Charing Cross Group of Hospitals, and by this College electing him to their fellowship.

After his retirement, William Burns was more than fully occupied with the Services and the Medical Research Council, including committees concerned with standardisation and establishing norms. He proved himself to be an exemplary committee man, becoming, for example, chairman of the otological sub-committee of the Royal Naval personnel research committee and chairman of the flying personnel research committee of the Royal Air Force. These involvements were a logical outcome of his experience in the physiological problems encountered by the Armed Services, especially those related to noise hazards.

When he finally retired at the age of 75, the Royal Navy honoured him with the title of emeritus civil consultant in audiology. The Royal Air Force honoured him with the title of honorary consultant in acoustic science. The British Society of Audiology had made him an honorary life member in recognition of his “distinguished record of service to audiology”.

William Burns said of his professor of physiology at Aberdeen (J J R Macleod [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.259]) that he was a “quiet, friendly and considerate person.” One perceived that Macleod had imparted not only knowledge to his pupil, but had also shaped his personality. William was indeed an approachable, assuming man with a soft Scottish accent. It was a pleasure to conduct research and otherwise work with him.

William was a devoted family man. He married Margaret Morgan, an artist, of Cambuslang, in 1936. Margaret, with whom he had enjoyed 63 years of “undiluted happiness”, predeceased him in July 1999. William is survived by his son Howard, a professor of the history of architecture, and by his daughter Maureen, together with Maureen’s children and grandchildren. William died, aged 94, at his home in Egham, Surrey.

R Hinchcliffe

[Brit. med. J.,2004, 328: 1441; The Times 29 April 2004]

(Volume XII, page web)

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