Remembering Dr. John H. Burgess (Royal College Past-President)
John H. Burgess, CM, MD, FRCPC, Royal College President from 1990 to 1992, said during his lifetime that his proudest moment arrived when he presided at the opening ceremony for the Royal College headquarters on Echo Drive in 1992. However, this illustrious physician is most widely known for his work to bring modern health care to Canada’s Arctic in the 1970s. Dr. Burgess died August 23, 2021, at his cottage on Lake Memphremagog in Vermont, USA. He was 88.
Dr. Burgess was born in Montreal in 1933. He earned his medical degree from McGill University in 1958 and, in the 1960s, underwent postgraduate training and cardiac research at the Montreal General Hospital and during fellowships in Birmingham, England and San Francisco.
He spent much of his career at the Montreal General Hospital, joining the staff in 1964 and becoming director of Cardiology in 1971. Dr. Burgess was also a celebrated teacher, taking on an assistant professorship at McGill University in 1966 and becoming a full professor in 1975. In 2004, he became an emeritus cardiologist with the McGill University Health Centre and, in 2014, was appointed as a James McGill Professor Emeritus at McGill.
Doctor to the North
Dr. Burgess is renowned for his work to bring modern health care to Canada’s North. In 1973, he began to spend several weeks a year — a practice he continued for three decades — as the consulting cardiologist for the McGill Baffin Project. He wrote a book called Doctor to the North: Thirty Years Treating Heart Disease among the Inuit about his experiences as a first-hand witness to changing disease patterns among the community.
“He was a pioneer – donating his time to learn about the Aboriginal communities in the North and to organize health services for them. He was a remarkable guy,” says Royal College Past-President Dr. Bernard Langer.
In the book, Dr. Burgess used stories of his Inuit patients to present a range of heart diseases and how they can be prevented. As one review of the book put it, Doctor to the North provided a unique insight into the making of a heart specialist, researcher and teacher. It also served as a history of health care and heart disease in the Canadian Inuit, and as Cardiology literature.
Dr. Burgess and the Royal College
Dr. Burgess became a Fellow of the Royal College in 1963 and served as an examiner in both Internal Medicine and Cardiology. He chaired key committees, including the R.S. McLaughlin Test Committee from 1979 to 1981, Examination Committee from 1982 to 1988, and Training and Evaluation Committee from 1988 to 1990. Originally appointed to Council in 1980 to replace a councillor who had resigned, Dr. Burgess was subsequently elected for two four-year terms – in 1982 and again in 1986.
“I was deeply saddened to learn that John had died. He certainly had an illustrious career and a fulfilling life. His warm smile and genuine concern for others will be missed by his friends at the Royal College, where he was President from 1990-1992,” says fellow Past-President Dr. M. Ian Bowmer.
During his presidency, the issue of assessing the training of international medical graduates resulted in Dr. Burgess setting up a joint subcommittee of the accreditation and credentials committees to pursue the matter. He also solidified the relationship of the Royal College with the national specialty societies.
And, in Dr. Langer’s words, “He was the guy who led the negotiations and purchase of what is now the current Royal College building.”
Among his many honours, Dr. Burgess was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1987 and named a Master of the American College of Physicians in 1993.