Bill Burke was a man with many gifts and a vibrant personality who firmly believed that everyone was trustworthy and genuine in all that they did. This gave him a remarkable quality of openness’. He was widely loved and respected, enjoyed life to the full and was at ease with people from all walks of life. He did have rather fixed ideas about the politics of medicine and was disappointed to see the honorary system of practice in public hospitals disappear. One of his favourite quotes was "Beware the man who accepts the King’s shilling".
Bill was the son of Thomas Burke, a clerk. His mother was of Scottish descent from Dunedin, New Zealand. After his initial education at the Marist Brothers College, Hamilton, Newcastle, New South Wales, Bill soon showed evidence of his intellect by winning the Bishop of Maitland bursary which provided funding for him to complete his secondary schooling at St Joseph’s Marist Brothers Boarding College, Hunters Hill, Sydney.
Initially Bill was undecided whether to study law or medicine but family influences guided him to medicine and he entered Sydney University in 1941. So began a passion for ‘mistress medicine’. He entered the clinical school at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, in 1943 and graduated with second class honours. He then became a resident medical officer at St Vincent’s and subsequently deputy medical superintendent. During this period he obtained his membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. At that time the chief censor of the College told him that although he had passed the examination he was too young to call himself a consultant physician. To this day he remains the youngest individual to pass that examination.
It was Ian Douglas Miller, pioneer of neurosurgery in Australia and now Sir Douglas Miller, emeritus consultant, who recognized Bill’s talents and encouraged him to go to London and study neurology. While in London he met his wife, Joan Kennedy. They married in 1951. Bill had left Australian shores on the Empire Star as ship’s officer. Frank Byron, pathologist at St Vincent’s, knew Russell Brain, later Lord Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60], from his own days at the London Hospital and recommended Bill to him, which led to his obtaining a post as house physician at the Maida Vale Hospital in June 1950. In December of that year he obtained his membership of the College and was appointed senior house physician at Queen Square in 1951 where he worked with the great men of neurology of that time such as Sir Charles Symonds [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.563], Sir Francis Walshe [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.448], J St Clair Elkington [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.116] and Macdonald Critchley [q.v.]. These great teachers had a profound influence on his future medical career and philosophy.
In 1952 he returned to Australia and St Vincent’s. With the support of Douglas Miller he was appointed honorary assistant neurologist to the neurological department, an appointment which laid the foundation for a department based on sound clinical skills, although the formal bedded neurological service was not set up until 1962. He was also appointed honorary neurologist to the Mater Hospital, North Sydney, and the Lewisham Hospital. Bill was deeply committed to the principles of the various religious orders of nuns who ran these hospitals - the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Little Company of Mary. A devoutly religious man, with strong Christian beliefs, he always felt it was a privilege to work with them in their common quest for excellence in the care of the sick. He was also dedicated to his patients and had a great love for clinical teaching. Students at Sydney University remember his lectures on neuroanatomy and clinical neurology. He would bring patients in his own car to the university and demonstrate their clinical problems to the fourth year medical class. Student and postgraduates would also flock to his ward rounds and teaching sessions to hear him unravel difficult neurological problems, and all his students remember the end of year parties that he put on for them.
Bill took on his share of administration, being chairman of the division of medicine, chairman of the medical board and a member of the advisory board at St Vincent’s Hospital. He held similar posts at Lewisham and Mater Hospitals. At St Vincent’s, with the support of Douglas Miller, he established a very close association with Kevin Bleasel, a neurosurgeon. Their friendship was unique and brought the departments of neurology and neurosurgery together, establishing a very strong collaboration which continues to the present day. Bill set a very high standard for his own work and applied his standard to others. He was always available to discuss careers with younger physicians and guide them along the correct path. He was extremely proud of the department and its clinical strength and encouraged every member of the department to be active in clinical teaching and to expand the department. With the introduction of new technology, particularly in the field of neuroradiology, he was at the fore in encouraging the Sisters of Charity and the board of St Vincent’s Hospital to develop CT scanning. One of the first CT scanners in New South Wales was installed in St Vincent’s Private Hospital. This was due to Bill’s efforts as he realized what a great advance it was to neurological practice. Of all the rewards and recognitions he received in his career none was greater than the last which was bestowed upon him: the naming of the William J Burke department of neurology at St Vincent’s General Hospital.
Bill Burke was a devoted family man who had few interests outside medicine and his family, which were his great love, but he immensely enjoyed horse racing and regularly attended race meetings at Randwick. For a brief period he was the proud owner of several race horses and some did well. He died three months after suffering an acute stroke, leaving behind his wife Joan and children.
Dudley J O’Sullivan