In Memoriam: John F. Burke

John F. Burke, the Helen Andrus Benedict Professor of Surgery, Emeritus, passed away on November 2, 2011 at the age of 89.

Burke was best known for his breakthrough work on the development of synthetic skin for the treatment of severe burns at Massachusetts General Hospital. Those who knew him well say it was his compassion for burn patients that drove him to this success.

A native of Chicago, Burke was studying chemical engineering at the University of Illinois when World War II broke out. He volunteered for service immediately and, by the war’s end, found that his career goals had changed. He finished his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois in 1947 and entered HMS that fall as a member of the Class of 1951.

Early in his medical career, Burke made the treatment of badly burned patients his highest priority and the advancement of those treatments his personal quest. He had already worked for several years to develop artificial skin when it occurred to him that he needed help from an ironic source: engineers.

In 1969, Burke brought his quest to Ioannis Yannas, then a professor of fibers and polymers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (now president of the Museum of Science, Boston). Over the next 11 years, they collaborated on the design of a flexible material that would protect the patient from infection and dehydration, and not be rejected by the immune system.

In 1981, they announced their success, an amalgam of a silicone outer sheet over a scaffolding of molecular material drawn from cow tendon and shark cartilage. While the silicone provided protection from infection and dehydration, the scaffolding enabled healthy skin cells to grow. The Burke-Yannas synthetic skin is now widely used to heal severe and extensive burns.

During his collaboration with Yannas, Burke was chief of staff at the Shriners Burn Institute at Mass General. From 1980 to 1990, he was the hospital’s chief of trauma services. During that tenure, he and another MIT colleague, Dr. Vernon Young, worked to establish the MGH Burn Research Center.

In writing about her father to The Harvard Crimson, Ann Burke described his dedication while on duty during the Blizzard of 1978. When emergency vehicles couldn’t reach the entrance to the hospital, Burke led a shovel brigade, clearing a path so that two badly burned boys could be brought in for treatment.

In 1991, Harvard University recognized Burke’s achievements with a named, endowed chair, the John F. Burke Professorship of Surgery at HMS. The chair is now held by George Velmahos, chief of Trauma, Emergency Surgery, and Surgical Critical Care at Mass General.

Burke is survived by his wife, Agnes, sons John S. Burke and Dr. Peter Burke, daughter Ann Campbell Burke, and eight grandchildren.