Lives Remembered

Lives Remembered: Dr Gerard Burns was a west Belfast boy who became an eminent US surgeon

Gerard and Mary Burns

IN 1949, Gerard P Burns was one of two boys in Northern Ireland to win a six-week summer trip to Canada in an essay-writing contest organized by Weston Biscuits.

Before departing, the 16-year-old from the Glen Road in west Belfast went to a ceremony at Stormont where Sir Norman Stronge, Speaker of the House of Commons, told them: “Do not hide your light under a bushel, but tell them in Canada what we did during the war and what we are doing in peace time.”

He then handed them a letter of good will from the governor, Earl Granville, to deliver to the High Commissioner of Canada.

Sir Norman Stronge presents 16-year-old Gerard Burns with a letter to deliver to the High Commissioner of Canada

Afterwards, a newspaper reporter asked the young Gerry what he wanted to do with his life.

“I want to be a doctor,” he replied.

His parents cringed at the thought. They had no money to pay for medical school.

Gerry, who died aged 87 on April 30 in his adopted home of Boulder, Colorado, did indeed go on to become a surgeon.

Having excelled as a pupil at St Mary’s Christian Brothers' School, he earned a scholarship to study medicine at Queen’s University Belfast and graduated in 1956, before training at the City and Royal Victoria Hospitals and London's Royal Postgraduate Medical School.

Gerard Burns graduated in 1956 from Queen's University Belfast

He practised general surgery with a special interest in the gastrointestinal tract.

He would later tell his children: “Don’t knock the old GI tract; it put you through college.”

In 1958, while stationed at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, he met Mary Rafferty, a nurse from Craigavole, Co Derry who was working on the tuberculosis ward. He invited her to a dance and she said yes.

They planned to marry, but the wedding was postponed when Gerry's father, Frederick, was struck by a drunken driver while walking home from church.

They eventually wed in 1961 at St Brigid’s Church in Belfast, with the bride’s brother Fr William Rafferty officiating.

In search of opportunity, they moved to London, where Gerry took a position at Hammersmith Hospital.

In 1966 he accepted a fellowship at the State University of New York in Buffalo to conduct award-winning research on the effect of exercise and digestion on intestinal blood flow.

Before he and Mary returned to London, they took their oldest two children on a 26-day, 8,000-mile driving tour of the US, camping along the way in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.

Gerard and Mary Burns with three of their children, Gerard, Helen and Cathy

A year later they returned to Buffalo when Gerry accepted a position of Professor of Surgery at the university and surgical specialist at EJ Meyer Memorial Hospital.

Dr Burns was Professor of Surgery at the State University of New York

In 1979, the family moved to Old Westbury, NY, where he took a post as senior attending surgeon at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center. He was eventually promoted to chief of general surgery.

He was also Professor of Surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York from 1989 to 2002.

He co-authored Disorders of the Pancreas and Basic Surgery, a textbook for medical students and surgical residents, and his research was published in dozens of medical journals.

After retiring, Gerry and Mary moved to Colorado to ski, hike, and spend time with their grandchildren.

Gerard and Mary Burns retired to Boulder, Colorado

They continued to take trips home to Ireland, as they had for decades, to visit family including his sister, Maureen Burns, and his brother, Jim, who both still live in Belfast.

Gerry was a gifted storyteller and was widely sought-after for speaking engagements, from wedding celebrations to medical lectures where his favourite subject was the surgical pioneers of Irish descent.

Having learned Irish at school, and perfected the language during summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht, even later in life, when Alzheimer’s had taken its toll, he would deliver his pearls of wisdom in the native tongue.

Dr Gerard Burns is survived by his wife of 58 years, Mary, their children Gerard, Catherine, Helen, Peter, Stephen and Clare and 11 grandchildren.

Helen Burns Olsson

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Lives Remembered