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Burgess, John Austin (1936–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

There is something about Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, that sprawling, ageing complex in Camperdown that generations of Sydney University medical students have attended, that seems to grab them. Vast numbers go as resident medical officers and some, essentially, never leave, preferring to stay at RPAH and both practise and advance the medical sciences.

John Burgess did that, starting in 1959, and made a lifelong contribution. Professor Ruthven Blackburn said of him that he had done ''much more than might have been expected from him in his various positions … He had the interest of the students at heart for a very long time, maybe 50 years.''

Medical practice and even the teaching of it produces strains and Burgess, who served as a physician, specialist and hospital board member, found diversion in his family and friends, in travelling, music and art. He visited art galleries, loved The New Yorker magazine and enjoyed the idiosyncratic world view of Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and its iconic character, Snoopy.

A voracious reader, Burgess sometimes quoted Groucho Marx's line: ''Outside of a dog a book is man's best friend. Inside a dog it's too dark to read,'' all this indicative of the rounded personality who spent his life dealing with problems afflicting his fellow humans.

John Austin Burgess was born in Sydney on February 21, 1936, son of a banker, Roy Burgess, and Ida (nee Herd). He grew up in Dubbo, where his father was sent as manager of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. He attended Dubbo High, where he developed an interest in English literature, debating and drama. But it was medicine that he chose, enrolling in Sydney University where he graduated in 1959. Burgess went to RPAH as a resident medical officer, proceeding to medical registrar in 1961. He worked in thoracic medicine and then in the hospital's biochemistry department before deciding to go to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1964 to learn more about growth hormone. He became a life-long member of the Endocrine Society and the American Diabetes Association.

In 1966 Burgess became an honorary assistant physician at RPAH. In 1968 he married Margaret Menser, a medical graduate he met at the hospital who was specialising in paediatrics. The couple set up home in Killara where their sons, Michael and David, were born. David was born at home suddenly in 1972 while Burgess was, on his later account, still looking for his textbook on how to deliver a baby.

The child was none the worse for wear.

Burgess worked with Professor John Turtle setting up techniques in hormone diagnosis and treatment of diabetes. He co-edited a book, Hypothalamus Pituitary and Aging, with Associate Professor Arthur Everitt. In 1971 Burgess was appointed student clinical supervisor in medicine at RPAH and became warden, or head, of the hospital's clinical school, an appointment he held for more than 20 years. Turtle said: ''His dedication to his students, his patients, his colleagues and friends was to be a hallmark of his activities at RPAH.'' Burgess became a member of the executive of the hospital's medical board in 1974, a position he held for 30 years.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of a scientific diabetes association in Australia and a member of the Australian Diabetes Society Council in its early years. From 1991 to 1994 he served as president of the RPAH Medical Officers Association. He practised as an endocrinology specialist and general physician at the hospital's medical centre in Carillon Avenue.

Burgess, who had a strong religious faith and read the scriptures, combined his compassion with his love of art, literature and music. He was fluent in French and liked wandering the art galleries of New York and leafing through The New Yorker's cartoons. He had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the major art galleries of the world, had visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia and collected Asian art.

His children did not disappoint. Michael went into business in the US and David became a cardiologist and father of twins, Eleanor and Jacqueline.

John Burgess is survived by Margaret, David and Michael and his granddaughters.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2010

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Burgess, John Austin (1936–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/burgess-john-austin-16844/text28740, accessed 14 November 2019.

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