Burn Specialist, HMS Professor Dies at 89

Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the Harvard Medical School John F. Burke, who revolutionized burn patient treatment, died of pancreatic cancer on November 2. He was 89.

Alongside MIT Professor Dr. Ioannis V. Yannas, Burke created Integra, a commercial product that functions as an artificial skin for burn victims. The material, which is devised of two layers of polymers that help facilitate skin-growth, was a defining accomplishment in Burke’s six-decade medical career.

Professor of Surgery at HMS Ronald G. Tompkins, noted that Burke recognized Yannas for his knowledge of polymer engineering, while Yannas relied on Burke for his deep medical expertise.

Tompkins, who succeeded Burke in his position as chief of trauma and burn services at Massachusetts General Hospital, called the late professor “a wonderful mentor.”

“He was easily approachable, but always inquisitive. He was very insightful about people, in terms of predicting what they might do and understanding why they might do it,” Tompkins said.


“He was the opposite of the stereotype of a surgeon,” he added.

In his 31 years working with Burke, Tompkins said that the late professor would often repeat two maxims.

“One, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play,’” Topmkins quoted. “Second, ‘Don’t ever take any wooden nickels.’”

The first, Tompkins said, spoke to Burke’s readiness to rise to new challenges, and the second to Burke’s “healthy skepticism.”

Dennis P. Orgill, an HMS Professor and one of Burke’s former students, remembered the pioneer’s commitment to  his patients and his passion for research as his defining characteristic.

“He could never seem to get enough of [his work],” said Orgill, who is also Vice Chair of Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “One time, he got a patient with a very large burn. He called up the lab, and all he said was, ‘We need a lot of skin!’ We all stopped what we were doing and worked in shifts to get it done.”

According to Orgill, Burke’s motivation was his patients.

“He was this really respected surgeon, but, ultimately, his focus was his burn patients: he wanted to do the best thing for them,” Orgill said.

In particular, Burke’s daughter, Professor of Biology at Wesleyan University Ann C. Burke, noted one story in which her father abandoned the scalpel for the shovel.

In the northeastern blizzard of 1978, snow had piled up to the point that emergency vehicles could not reach Shriners Hospital for Children, where Burke was on-call. Refusing to wait for more manpower, he enlisted the help of the on-duty nurses and shoveled the entrance himself, so that two badly burned boys could be brought in for treatment.

“That,” the younger Burke wrote in an email, “is a good story.”