Gerard P. Burns
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September 2, 1932 - April 30, 2020
Gerard P. Burns, 87, surgeon, professor, author, and researcher, passed away on April 30, 2020, in his adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where he lived with his wife of 58 years, Mary J. Burns, née Rafferty.
Dr. Burns was born on September 2, 1932, near the Glen Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1949, at 16, he was one of two boys in Northern Ireland to win a six-week summer trip to Canada in an essay writing contest organized by Weston Biscuits. Before the trip, the young Burns went to a ceremony at Stormont, site of Northern Ireland’s Parliament, where Sir Norman Stronge, the Speaker of the House of Commons at the time, told the boys: “Do not hide your light under a bushel, but tell them in Canada what we did during the war and what we are doing in peacetime.” He then handed them a letter of good will from governor Earl Granville to deliver to the High Commissioner of Canada.
After the meeting at Stormont, a newspaper reporter asked the young student what he wanted to do with his life. “Be a doctor,” he told them. His parents cringed at the thought. They had no money to pay for medical school.
The next year, 1950, he graduated from St. Mary’s Christian Brothers Secondary School with distinction, earning him a scholarship to study medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast. The opportunity was made possible by the passing of the landmark 1947 Education Act in Northern Ireland, which opened access to education to the country’s working class. In school, he also studied Gaelic and would spend summers perfecting the language in Donegal’s Gaeltacht (a designated region where Irish is the favored language). As part of the drama group Taidhleacht Bheilfeirste, he won a silver medal for his performance as Bottom in a Gaelic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even later in life, when Alzheimer’s had taken its toll, Dr. Burns would deliver pearls of wisdom in Gaelic, his Irish brogue, softened by years in America, growing strong in the native tongue.
Dr. Burns graduated from Queen’s University of Belfast in 1956 with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, Bachelor of Obstetrics (M.B., B.Ch., B.A.O.), the equivalent of an M.D. degree in the U.S. He did his post-graduate training in Belfast at Belfast City Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, and later at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, London. He practiced general surgery with a special interest in surgery of the gastrointestinal tract. He would tell his six children: “Don’t knock the old GI tract; it put you through college.”
In 1958, when he was working at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, he met Mary Rafferty, a nurse who was working on the tuberculosis ward. He invited her to a dance. She said yes. They planned to marry, but the wedding was postponed when Dr. Burns’ father, Frederick Burns, was struck by a drunken driver while he was walking home from the local church. They eventually married on August 28, 1961, at St. Brigid’s Church in Belfast, with the bride’s brother Fr. William Rafferty officiating. It was an understated affair, as Dr. Burns’ father remained in a coma for two and a half years after the accident. In 1964, they moved to London, seeking more opportunity than could be found in Northern Ireland at the time, to take a position at Hammersmith Hospital. In 1966, he earned a Master of Surgery (M.Ch.) degree from Queens University Belfast.
That same year, he accepted the Buswell Fellowship at the State University of New York at Buffalo to conduct award-winning research on the effect of exercise and digestion on intestinal blood flow. Before he and his wife returned to London, they took their oldest two children on a 26-day, 8,000-mile driving tour of the U.S., camping along the way in places like Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. Camping with kids, Dr. Burns told Buffalo’s Courier-Express, was nothing compared to sailing through a hurricane, which they’d done on a cruise from London to New York earlier that year. “Everyone except Mary was ill,” he said.
After a year back in London at Hammersmith, he accepted an offer for a permanent position as a surgical specialist at E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital and on the faculty of SUNY Buffalo, where he eventually attained the rank of Professor of Surgery.
Outside of the hospital, Dr. Burns was known as “Gerry.” He loved skiing, a sport he and Mary adopted once they moved from the U.K. to Buffalo, N.Y., and they put all six of their children into the ski racing program at nearby 550-vertical-foot Kissing Bridge ski area. Gerry taught his kids the Gaelic word for snow, sneachta. He loved to hike and to golf. In the mid-1970s, he sank a hole-in-one on the 221-yard ninth hole at Transit Valley Country Club. He was a gifted storyteller and was widely sought after for speaking engagements, from wedding celebrations to medical lectures.
In 1979, the family moved to Old Westbury, N.Y., where Dr. Burns took a post as Senior Attending Surgeon at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center and Professor of Surgery at SUNY at Stony Brook School of Medicine. He was eventually promoted to Chief of General Surgery, a post he held from 1989 to 1997. He was also Professor of Surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York from 1989 to 2002.
He co-authored Disorders of the Pancreas (McGraw-Hill, 1992) with Simmy Bank, M.D. and served as associate editor of Basic Surgery (MacMillan 1990), a textbook for medical students and surgical residents. His medical research was published in dozens of medical journals, from The American Journal of Surgery to Digestive Surgery.
Gerry was fascinated by the stories of Ireland’s surgical pioneers and had planned to write a book about them. In lectures, he would tell the tale of Ephraim McDowell, who earned renown for doing an experimental surgery in 1802 to remove a 22-pound ovarian cyst from a Kentucky woman. She rode 60 miles by horseback to Danville, where he performed the operation—without anesthesia. Gerry also liked to tell the story about the time he had lunch with Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich maneuver. “No one choked,” he would say. Gerry could deliver a punchline.
After he retired, Gerry and Mary moved to Colorado to ski, golf, hike, and spend time with their grandchildren. They continued to take trips home to Ireland, as they had for decades, to visit with their respective families.
Over the years, Mary and Gerry would bring picnic lunches to the ski hill, and the family rarely ate dinner in restaurants. Born during the Great Depression, Gerry had frugality built into his DNA, but he still had a few guilty pleasures. After years of driving wood-paneled station wagons and pragmatic 4WD sport utility vehicles, he indulged in antique luxury cars. He had a powder blue 1978 Mercedes Benz and a secondhand white Jaguar (which he pronounced “Jag-yoo-ar”). He liked his Bushmills and, until he finally kicked the habit, enjoyed smoking a pipe. (Mary would send him outside to light up.)
Gerry is survived by his wife, Mary Burns, and their six children, Gerard K. Burns, married to Tanya Burns; Catherine Burns, married to Ken Apen; Helen Burns Olsson, married to Jeffrey Olsson; Peter Burns, married to Gowon Song Burns; Stephen Burns, married to Kelly Sullivan Burns; and Clare Burns. He leaves behind 11 grandchildren: Darby Burns, Fergus Burns, Maeve Burns, Kilian Apen, Quinn Olsson, Aidan Olsson, Anya Olsson, Finn Burns, Ronan Burns, Rory Burns, and Fionnula Burns. He is also survived by his sister Maureen Burns and his brother Jim Burns.
A memorial service will be held at Sacred Heart of Mary church in Boulder, Colorado, on a future date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, (alzfdn.org).