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Burke, William John (Bill) (1923–1994)

by Dudley J. O'Sullivan

This article was published online in 2018

William John Gerard Burke (1923–1994), neurologist, was born on 4 May 1923 at Hamilton, Newcastle, New South Wales, eldest of four children of New South Wales-born Thomas Burke, clerk, and his New Zealand-born wife Lynda, née Harvey. Bill was educated at Marist Brothers’ High School, Hamilton, and won a Bishop of Maitland bursary to attend St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, Sydney (1936–40). He was dux of the college in 1940, winning the Emilian gold medal for best pass in the Leaving certificate and a university bursary and exhibition to study medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1946).

After graduating with second-class honours, Burke became resident medical officer at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, and in 1949 deputy medical superintendent. That year he became the youngest person to that date to pass the membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (fellow 1961). The neurosurgeon (Sir) Douglas Miller encouraged him to study neurology in London. He left Australia as ship’s doctor aboard the Empire Star.

In London Burke was appointed house physician at Maida Vale Hospital for Nervous Diseases. He obtained his membership of the Royal College of Physicians in December 1950 (fellow 1976). The following year he was appointed senior house physician at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, where he studied under experts in neurology such as Sir Charles Symonds, Sir Francis Walshe, Jack Elkington, and Macdonald Critchley. On 14 July 1951 at St James’s Roman Catholic Church, Spanish Place, he married Joan Margaret Kennedy, a nurse from St Vincent’s Hospital.

On returning to Australia in 1952, Burke became assistant neurologist in the department of neurosurgery at St Vincent’s Hospital. His appointment laid the foundation for the establishment of the hospital’s department of neurology, which was formed in 1962; he had become honorary neurologist the previous year. He was chairman of medical staff (1972–74), chairman of the medical board (1974–75), and chairman of the medical advisory committee (1986–92). In 1953 he had been appointed honorary consulting neurophysician at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney, and later honorary assistant physician at Lewisham Hospital.

During the 1950s and 1960s Burke lectured in neuroanatomy and clinical neurology at the University of Sydney. Throughout his career he participated in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, and he encouraged younger neurologists to pursue their careers and become involved in research. He established a private practice at 149 Macquarie Street and conducted outpatient clinics at the hospitals where he held appointments. A member of the Australian Association of Neurologists since 1954, he was a council member and honorary treasurer from 1963 to 1971. In 1980 he presented the E. Graeme Robertson memorial lecture on the subject of myasthenia gravis, reviewing sixty patients he had managed. He retired from St Vincent’s in 1988, becoming emeritus consultant neurologist the following year.

A great raconteur and singer, Burke regularly entertained colleagues and medical students at his home. He had a deep commitment to his Catholic faith as well as to the religious sisters who managed the hospitals at which he worked. A member of the Old Boys’ committee of St Joseph’s College, where his sons were educated, he served as president from 1954 to 1955. He loved horse racing and frequently attended race meetings at Randwick. Following a stroke, he died on 7 September 1994 at Darlinghurst, and was buried at Northern Suburbs Catholic lawn cemetery. His wife, five daughters, and three sons survived him. The department of neurology at St Vincent’s had been named in his honour in 1992.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Burke, William. Personal communication
  • Eadie, M. J. The Flowering of a Waratah: A History of Australian Neurology and of the Australian Association of Neurologists. Sydney: John Libbey, 2000
  • Hickie, John B. The Thinkers: A History of the Physicians and the Development of Scientific Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney 1857–1997. Caringbah, NSW: Playright, 2000
  • O’Sullivan, Dudley J. ‘Burke, William John Gerard,’ Royal Australasian College of Physicians Roll. Accessed 14 April 2016. https://members.racp.edu.au/page/library/college-roll/college-roll-detail&id=56. Copy held on ADB file
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

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Citation details

Dudley J. O'Sullivan, 'Burke, William John (Bill) (1923–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-william-john-bill-19121/text30694, published online 2018, accessed online 23 April 2021.

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