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Gerard Burke, MB BCh BAO 1962 (1938-2014)

Irish Times, Saturday March 28, 2015

It was characteristic of Limerick-based doctor Gerry Burke that even a month before his death he was still writing vigorous letters to politicians complaining of treatment delays at Limerick University Hospital.

 

Never one to shirk commitment, Burke was quite prepared to take risks: in 1964, and again 10 years later, he left the safety of Britain’s National Health Service for much less stable circumstances in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, on the latter occasion returning to a country in the throes of war.

 

While there, he served as a conscripted member of the Rhodesian army’s medical corps, with the rank of major.

 

An incident from this period illustrates some aspects of Burke’s character. On board an army helicopter with an injured soldier requiring immediate treatment, he realised that the nearest hospital was over the border in South Africa. He got permission to land and then had to confront the admissions staff, who denied admission to the black soldier in this “whites only” facility. Burke stood his ground, the soldier was admitted and his life was saved.

 

On his return to Ireland, and an appointment at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital, in 1981 he was shocked at the paucity of resources available to him. At his retirement dinner in 2004 he recalled that “I just couldn’t believe in 1981 what was not here, and what was standard where I had just left!” Nonetheless, with colleague Dr Peter Dempsey, he duly established a new gastroenterology unit and a dialysis unit.

 

His Irish career saw him active in medical advocacy.' For eight years (1992-2000) he was a committee member of the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association and also sat on the Post-Graduate Medical and Dental Board (1998-2002) and the Human Medicines Advisory Board.

Tropical medicine

These commitments reflected two long-standing passions: his strong belief in constant, career-long upgrading of medical practitioners’ knowledge (he had himself spent several sabbaticals at the world-famous Groot Schuur hospital in Cape Town), and his expertise in tropical medicine, gained through a master’s degree in 1967 at London University and work thereafter in Nigeria and Biafra during and after the civil war of 1967-70. Employed at the time by the Wellcome Foundation as a researcher, Burke was released specially to help rebuild the hospital at Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

 

Gerard Joseph Burke was born in Belfast on August 21st, 1938, the son of Robert Burke, an insurance salesman, and Margaret McGuinness. He was educated at St Malachy’s College and Queen’s University. At school, he played on both the Antrim minor hurling and handball teams and at university was awarded the Calvert Medal for oratory while serving on the Queen’s team which was a semi-finalist in the Observer Mace competition.

 

He emigrated to the then Southern Rhodesia in 1964, working for two years at a hospital in the Wankie colliery district, which served a population of 1.5 million, before returning to study for his tropical medicine degree at St Pancras Hospital in London. After Nigeria, he also worked for live years at hospitals in Cardiff and Birmingham.

 

While in Wankie, he met his wife, Patricia Murray, a computer scientist, who survives him as do their children Hugo and Siobhan, his brothers Vincent and Kevin, and grandchildren.

 

 

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