Lives of the fellows

Eric Dawson Burnard

b.20 August 1916 d.12 September 1991
MB BCh Otago(1940) MRCP(1947) MRACP(1951) FRACP(1961) FRCP(1973)

Eric Burnard was the son of Leonard Thomas Burnard, a barrister and solictor, and his wife Dorothy née Bull. He was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, and educated at Wanganui Collegiate School and the Otago Medical School.

After graduation he became house surgeon at Auckland Hospital and in 1941 he joined the New Zealand Army Medical Corps. He attained the rank of major and served with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Middle East and Italy until 1945. In 1946 he came to the UK and held posts at Hammersmith Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and the General Hospital, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He subequently returned to New Zealand and was appointed senior medical registrar at Wellington Hospital. For a brief period he practised privately as a paediatrician.

In 1954 he returned to the UK and joined the paediatric unit at St Mary’s Hospital medical school in London. In 1959 he joined Stanley James, a fellow New Zealander, at Columbia University and the Colombia Medical Center, New York. Two years later, by invitation, he went to Sydney, Australia, to set up a unit for newborn research at the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, under the auspices of the Children’s Medical Research Foundation, and remained there until he retired in 1981 - continuing to work there until 1989, facilities being provided by Foundation 41.

Burnard’s major contributions were in the field of neonatology. He was an astute observer, meticulous in his record keeping and determined to prove a point before dashing into print. As one referee recorded, when continuation of funding was an issue: ‘He has a thorough, uncompromising adherence to the value of scientific objectivity and the utilization of the scientific method. His work shines above that of many others who sacrifice quality for quantity. His thoroughness explains why he has not been beset by having to retract views or information hastily or shoddily planned or conceived.’

While he was unrelenting in his search for new knowledge, and had a passionate dedication to research, all who knew him were struck by his compassion and acute clinical observation. He realized that it is much safer to make observations on babies when assisted by the requisite number of people to ensure the baby’s safety, for he never did anything that might be hazardous for the baby. He had considerable difficulty in getting some members of his research granting committee to understand his needs. He considered that a physicist was an essential member of the team and the training he gave to his research colleagues was of the highest quality.

Some outstanding contributions were: on the murmur of the ductus arteriosus, his first report appeared in 1959 and two decades later he demonstrated that its closure can be hastened by giving indomethacin; on pulmonary infection in immature babies and the Wilson-Mikity Syndrome; on the natural history of hyaline membrane disease, and on the role of interstitial air as a causal factor in the production of pneumothorax and pneumoperitoneum. In addition he made valuable observations on Hirschsprung’s Disease, as well as on the effects of analgesics on the newborn baby when given to the woman in labour.

After his death many comments from colleagues recorded his wide influence and highlighted his character: ‘Eric was one of the very important figures in paediatrics in our city and, indeed, in Australia -but his quiet nature meant that he made no fuss about it. The veritable growth industry of neonatal paediatrics followed him, but he set standards that did good to all his successors and set it off along the right lines.’ (Don Hamilton, Sydney); ‘He was a very important member of the international perinatal group. Young people now tend to reinvent the wheel, but many of the new wheels were long since described by Eric, 20-30 years ago.’ (Mildred Stahlman, USA); ‘. . . the gold standard for scientific research in babies. His inquiring mind and attention to detail were the inspiration to many of us and neonatology everywhere has much to thank him for. I will miss that smile and sense of fun.’ (Mick Adamson, Melbourne).

He married Joyce née Halstead, also a New Zealander, in 1962 and their home in Woollahra was a haven for neonatoloeists - not only from Australia but from many countries. Sadly, they had no children of their own.

T Stapleton

(Volume IX, page 66)

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