Development & Alumni Relations Office 


Gerard P Burns MB, BCh, BAO, MCh (died 30 April 2020, aged 87)


Obituary provided by daughter, Helen Burns Olsson


Gerard was born on 2 September 1932 in Belfast. In 1949, he was one of two boys in Northern Ireland to win a six-week summer trip to Canada in an essay writing contest organised by Weston Biscuits. Before the trip, the young Burns went to a ceremony at Stormont, where he met Sir Norman Stronge, the Speaker of the House of Commons. After the meeting, a newspaper reporter asked Gerry, as he was known, what he wanted to do with his life. “Be a doctor,” he told them. His parents cringed at the thought. They had no money to pay for medical school.


In 1950, he graduated from St Mary’s Christian Brothers Secondary School with distinction, earning himself a scholarship to study Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast. In school, he also studied Gaelic and would spend summers perfecting the language in Donegal’s Gaeltacht.

Gerry graduated from Queen’s in 1956 with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, Bachelor of Obstetrics (MB, BCh, BAO). He did his post-graduate training at Belfast City Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, and later at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, London. He practiced general surgery with a special interest in surgery of the gastrointestinal tract.

In 1958, when he was working at Musgrave Park Hospital, he met Mary Rafferty, a nurse on the tuberculosis ward. They went on to marry on 28 August 1961 at St Brigid’s Church in Belfast. In 1964, they moved to London, where Gerry took a position at Hammersmith Hospital. In 1966, he earned a Master of Surgery (MCh) degree from Queen’s.


That same year, he accepted the Buswell Fellowship at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo to conduct award-winning research on the effect of exercise and digestion on intestinal blood flow. After a year back in London at Hammersmith, he accepted an offer for a permanent position as a surgical specialist at EJ Meyer Memorial Hospital and on the faculty of SUNY Buffalo, where he eventually attained the rank of Professor of Surgery.


Gerry was an avid skier, a sport he and Mary adopted once they moved to Buffalo. He also loved to hike and to golf. He was a gifted storyteller and was widely sought after for speaking engagements, from wedding celebrations to medical lectures. His favourite subject was surgical pioneers of Irish descent.


In 1979, the family - there were six children by this time - moved to Old Westbury, New York, where Gerry took a post as Senior Attending Surgeon at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Centre and Professor of Surgery at SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine. He was eventually promoted to Chief of General Surgery, a post he held from 1989 to 1997. He was also Professor of Surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York from 1989 to 2002.

After he retired, he and Mary moved to Colorado to ski, hike and spend time with their grandchildren. They continued to take trips home to Ireland, as they had for decades, to visit with family.


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