Lives of the fellows

Charles Ritchie (Sir) Burns

b.25 May 1898 d.8 February 1985
KBE(1958X) OBE(1948) MB ChB Otago(1922) MD(1924) MRCP(1925) FRACP(1938) FRCP(1943) Hon DSc(Otago)

Papal Kt St Gregory the Great Charles Ritchie Burns was born in Blenheim, of Scottish and Irish descent, the eldest son in a family of three boys and two girls. His father Archibald Douglas Burns was a Marlborough civil servant and his mother was Margaret Mary née Dineen. He entered the Otago Medical School at Dunedin in 1916, graduating in 1922 and being awarded both the Faculty medical travelling scholarship and the Batchelor Memorial medal for obstetrics and gynaecology.

He went on to obtain his doctorate and then his membership of the College, the latter during the first of several periods of postgraduate study in the UK On his return to New Zealand he suffered pulmonary tuberculosis which necessitated withdrawal from professional work for several months. Subsequently he established a private practice in Dunedin and was appointed assistant physician to the outpatient department at Dunedin Hospital. In 1938 he was appointed director of the division of medicine in the Auckland Hospital But it was in Wellington, in 1940, that he began his main lifetime practice as a physician, as a general internist but with an increasing cardiological interest. He was on the staff of the Wellington Hospital as a consultant physician from 1940-58 and physician in charge of the department of cardiology.

Charles accomplished some particularly notable innovative medical experiences: in his early professional years he was the first doctor in a New Zealand hospital to administer insulin in the treatment of a diabetic; he was also one of the first to use raw liver for the treatment of Addisonian anaemia. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1943.

He was a Foundation Fellow of the Australasian College and contributed very much to its development, serving as a censor and as New Zealand vice-president. For 12 years he was a respected member of the Medical Council of New Zealand. During the second world war he spent two periods of military service overseas - one in Italy from 1945-46 and the other in Japan, 1946-47. He held the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the OBE (Military Division) in 1948.

Teaching was a priority for Charles, with interests in medical students, nurses and hospital residential staff. Although resident in Wellington he was closely associated with the medical school in Dunedin through his friendship with Sir Horace Smirk, and his involvement for many years as an examiner in medicine.

He had a special interest in voluntary societies, which he encouraged, not all of an exclusively medical character. He was a founder member and president of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, patron of the Diabetic Association, and patron of the New Zealand Asthma Society. He was a long-term member of the New Zealand Lepers’ Trust Board, patron of the Deaf Children’s Association and of the Society for the Protection of Community Standards.

At the age of 60 he retired from the Wellington Hospital board, but continued m consultant practice and also worked as a physician at Calvary Hospital and Wellington’s Home of Compassion. He became particularly concerned about social and medical problems associated with alcohol and in 1969 became medical officer to Queen Mary Hospital, Hammer Springs - a hospital devoted to the care of alcoholics. He was recognized as a national spokesman on alcoholism, regarding it as a disease entity rather than a social or moral failing. Back in Wellington in 1970 he became the director of clinical services for the National Society on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, involving himself at the workface with the care of those affected.

He developed a close liaison with those involved in similar work overseas and facilitated the training of many now working in New Zealand in senior capacities within this field. He was noted for his detailed attention to the problems of individual patients and he was able to relate well to fellow humans of widely diverse social standing.

Charles was a man of great religious sanctity, attending Mass daily. He was master of the Guild of St Luke and SS Cosmas and Damien m Wellington. He placed tremendous demands on himself, working long hours and well known for visiting patients at a late evening hour and continuing to work in his office until the early hours of the morning. He demanded high standards from those who worked for him and encouraged excellence in detail. He was warm in acknowledging the contributions of others and in his praise of conscientious work by those assisting him. He was also notable at scientific meetings for his praise and encouragement of juniors who had presented papers.

The general impression of Charles Burns was of an ascetic character. He was, however, a warm and approachable person. In company, especially among physicians and other medical colleagues, he would relax and demonstrate not only a good sense of humour but also the warm fellowship he felt with other doctors. In his later years his special place among New Zealand’s medical profession was honoured by the Wellington Division of the New Zealand Medical Association in two ways - a room in the city’s new town hall, the Michael Fowler Centre, was sponsored and named the Charles Burns Room and, due to an over-subscribing of contributions from the region’s doctors towards this, an annual Charles Burns Oration was established at the Wellington School of Medicine, devoted to a topic in internal medicine but of interest to all doctors in the region.

In 1935 he had married Muriel Laffey, a nursing sister, who died tragically in 1949 in a clothing fire which enveloped her as she was preparing to attend a BMA Ball. They had two children, a daughter -now Mrs Margaret Sherry of Auckland - and a son, Tim, in Wellington. Many years later Charles married his cousin Doris Ramsay, from Dunedin, well known for her work in the International Red Cross. She died in 1982.

T V O’Donnell

(Volume IX, page 67)

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