Charles Ritchie Burns was born 27 May 1898 in Blenheim, New Zealand. He was the eldest son in a family of three boys and two girls. His grandfather was Dr Robert Burns of Dunedin. Through his parents, Archibald Douglas Burns, a Marlborough civil servant, and Margaret Mary Direen, Charles had Scottish and Irish ancestory. He was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St Mary's Primary School and at Nelson College before entering the Otago Medical School in 1916. He graduated MB ChB with distinction in 1922 and won both the Medical Travelling Scholarships and Batchelor Memorial Medal for Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Following a period as assistant in the Department of Pathology and house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital, Charles made the first of many trips to London for postgraduate study. In 1925, he obtained his MD (NZ) and in the same year the MRCP (London).
When he returned to New Zealand, he worked in tutoring posts in the Dunedin Hospital before pulmonary tuberculosis withdrew him from professional work for several months. He then spent a year as resident physician in New Plymouth before returning to Dunedin to private practice and a post as assistant physician to the outpatient department.
After postgraduate study in London in 1937 and 1938, Charles returned to New Zealand where he was director of the division of medicine in the Auckland Hospital. Charles then moved to Wellington where his medical practice was conducted for the next forty years apart from two periods of military service and three postgraduate visits to London. The military service was with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the later stages of the Italian Campaign 1944-45, and the Combined British Occupation Force in Japan 1946-47.
Charles was consultant physician at Wellington Hospital from 1939 until 1957. Although his background was of a general physician, his specifically cardiological interest was recognised and throughout his years at Wellington he was physician in charge of the department of cardiology.
Alongside his Wellington Hospital appointment, he was also senior physician at the Home of Compassion, Island Bay from 1940 to 1966. He had a large number of patients through his private consultant practice and at Wellington Hospital, Calvary Hospital and the Home of Compassion. He also taught, lead and inspired students, nurses and residents. He always wanted those working and learning with him to achieve and excel. Teaching was second nature to Charles. He loved a learner and applied his zeal for all.
Charles was elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, London in 1943. In the post war years, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, of which he had been a foundation fellow in 1938, was strengthening its base, its meetings, its examinations. The progress of the College was ever an active concern of Charles which showed in his service as censor and dominion vice-president and by his constant attendance at College meetings. For twelve years, he was also a member of the Medical Council of New Zealand.
Although Charles came more and more to be recognised as a cardiologist, his interest in other areas of medicine was very real. He had in his early years been the first doctor to administer insulin in the treatment of a diabetic in a New Zealand hospital. A few years later he was one of the first to use raw liver for restoration of normal haemopoiesis in Addisonian anaemia. Long before his community orientations showed in high profile in the alcohol work which took so much of his time in later years he was founder member and president of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, patron of the Diabetic Association and patron of the Asthma Society.
Add to these his long term membership of the Leper Trust Board and his patronage of the Deaf Children's Association and the Society for Protection of Community Standards and we see how readily he assisted any group with a need or an ideal. More exacting than the duties of patron of the bodies mentioned was Charles' task as chairman in its early years of the Wellington Cancer and Medical Research Institute Trust Board. None of his responsibilities or undertakings showed more clearly the combination of insight and persistence which enabled him to implement his visions. He did more for academic medicine in this way than through the publication of scientific papers, for although many of his addresses were published, and he had written both observational and reflective papers, the day to day diagnostic and therapeutic demands that he allowed to be made on him precluded a significant offering of rigorously constructed research papers.
At the age of sixty, Charles completed his years of service with the Wellington Hospital Board. For a number of years he then continued in consultant practice and in his work at the Home of Compassion. In 1966 he went for six months to Kew Hospital, Invercargill as consultant to the Southland Hospital Board. In 1969 his interest in the ravages of alcohol on the human body and person led him to take a post as medical officer to Queen Mary Hospital, Hanmer Springs in order to become more familiar with the grammar and basics of alcoholism which he firmly regarded as a disease rather than as a primary social or moral failing.
On return from Hanmer, then aged seventy two, Charles became director of clinical services for the National Society of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Patients generally appreciated ministration from Charles but the alcoholics whom he rescued and healed were among the most grateful of his followers. In 1975 he travelled to Melbourne to deliver the Leonard Bell Oration entitling his address 'Alcohol: the family disease'. In Wellington the National Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence had for a number of years held an annual 'Charles Burns Lecture' before the New Zealand Medical Association established the separate 'Charles Burns Oration' covering a topic in the field of general medicine.
Much of Charles' clinical work was carried out in religious hospitals, notably Calvary in Newtown and the Home of Compassion of Island Bay. Many of his patients were religious sisters, brothers and clergy whom he helped with his physician skills and his depth of understanding, his sympathy and his firmness. He was himself deeply religious but his religion did not intrude or oppress. While his observance and his witness were daily and constant, he was never to be heard in theological dissension. He was the Second Master of the Guild of St Luke and SS Cosmas and Damian in Wellington. During his period in office there was held the First Interdiocesan Conference, the theme of which was 'The Doctor and the State'. To the end of his life he was a faithful attender at guild meetings and the Annual Retreat.
Charles is one of New Zealand's most remarkable doctors. He was also a remarkable person. Despite honours, status and prestige he was a humble, friendly and human person whose interest in the family of his patient or his house physician was totally genuine. His affirmation was readily given, his congratulation for any achievement and his gratitude for any assistance. If he uttered words or manifested reaction which he later thought had been too sharp, he was always ready to ring or write and say so. He was one who really cared, made it his business to know what was relevant and he never stopped. He had not just the common touch in his capacity to relate too people but the universal touch. He was a very affirmative, supporting and encouraging person.
Those who served with Charles at the Military Hospital in Japan in 1946 were immediately aware of his interest and concern. The concern was for everyone, rank and file, orderlies, nurses and of course patients. He oversaw all departments, knew what was happening, was firm about discipline but benign as well. He made special arrangements for continuing study by his medical officers and went beyond ordinary duty in his efforts to get them back to civilian and professional life as soon as possible. In the military as in the civilian hospital, Charles was thorough and demanding but never on anyone more than himself.
Charles was a man of great industry, great sanctity and great friendship. The outstanding thing was not his knowledge, his clinical skill or his accumulated wisdom, but his willingness to share it all. He shared himself with everyone. He was a very lovable person uniquely attractive to colleagues, patients and anyone who had anything to do with him. Not surprisingly, these attitudes combined with professional excellence led to widespread appreciation and recognition within the profession, the community and the church. In 1948 he received the OBE (Military Division); in 1974 he was made a fellow of the New Zealand Medical Association; in 1975 he was awarded an honorary doctorate (DSc) by the University of Otago; and he received knighthoods from both the Queen in England (KBE 1958) and the Holy Father in Rome (Knight of the Order of St Gregory 1977).
Charles married Muriel Laffey, a Dunedin nursing sister, in 1935. There were two children. In 1949 he was widowed when Muriel died from a tragic clothing fire that enveloped her as she prepared to attend a Medical Association Ball. Many years later, Charles married his cousin, Doris Ramsay from Dunedin, well known in different parts of the world for her international Red Cross activities and for her musical skills. Doris died in 1982 after which Charles cared for himself with the assistance of his son Tim and daughter-in-law Suriah. In 1983, he moved to the home of his daughter Margaret and son-in-law Philip in Auckland.
Before Charles moved to Auckland after forty years of active practice in Wellington, the Wellington division of the Medical Association honoured him in two associated and outstanding ways. The Association sponsored the naming of 'The Charles Burns Room' in The Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington's new town hall. The Association then invited colleagues, friends and those with whom Charles had been associated, to an evening function in the same Centre, to say farewell. A very large gathering of well wishers attended and heard not only a splendid eulogy by Sir Randal Elliott, outlining Sir Charles' many contributions to medicine, to the City of Wellington and to New Zealand, but also a remarkable address by Sir Charles himself thanking those who honoured him. Shortly before the meeting in the Town Hall, Charles was the guest at a much smaller meeting, a luncheon by the Guild of St Luke.
After the luncheon, he wrote to those who arranged it:
'I cannot escape saying that I have been somewhat perplexed and bewildered by the kindness and goodness which has been shown to me in recent weeks. I do want you all to know that deep in my heart I so treasure it all' and he added, 'Many have been allowed to slip into oblivion without special notice'.
Charles' combination of humility, friendship and service made it certain that these words would not apply to him.
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