Whether cardiologist Dr. John Burgess was on a Twin Otter plane being flown through hazardous weather to a remote Inuit community, or in formal attire attending to a former patient at an Order of Canada ceremony, the head of cardiology at Montreal General Hospital (MGH) made an indelible impact on those within his orbit.
“He was the gold standard” said Dr. Joel Wolkowicz, a cardiologist who trained under Dr. Burgess from 1987 to 1989. “He could mimic what different heart problems sound like when heard through a stethoscope. Electronic versions of heart sounds were eventually developed to help students learn but I always found that Dr. Burgess’s imitations were far superior.”
Dr. Murray Kornbluth, now MGH’s site director of cardiology, recalled his own student days as a resident with Dr. Burgess. “He made it clear that a good clinician could make a diagnosis using his eyes, ears and hands. He really shone at the bedside. That’s where he was a star.”
Dr. Burgess’s own education took an involuntary turn just as he was appointed head of cardiology at MGH in 1973, when the hospital’s physician-in-chief informed him that he was to be part of a McGill University project aimed at improving health care in Northern Canada. Dr. Burgess subsequently became the first regular consulting cardiologist to the Canadian Arctic.
Every year for the next 30 years, Dr. Burgess made a month-long sojourn to communities in Nunavut and Nunavik, as well as remote nursing stations where the most sophisticated technology available was likely his stethoscope. It was a challenging task but one he came to love, particularly when he could provide medical assistance to babies and children.
Dr. Burgess wrote about the time he spent doing “cardiology in the trenches” in his memoir Doctor to the North: Thirty Years Treating Heart Disease Among the Inuit.
In the book, he laments the increase in coronary disease he saw among Indigenous people. “The Inuit have developed a modern way of life and now share our diseases. There is no turning back on their interdependency, economically, socially and for medical health care.”
Dr. Burgess took care of his own health with a Mediterranean diet high in vegetables, and kept fit by walking. A subsequent book written by Dr. Burgess focused on the 200-year history of the MGH, whose teaching unit formed Canada’s first medical school. Today, the hospital remains affiliated with McGill University and its faculty of medicine and health sciences, where Dr. Burgess was a professor.
On Aug. 21, the retired cardiologist’s own heart unexpectedly stopped beating. At the time, he had been sitting dockside at his beloved family cottage on Lake Memphremagog in Vermont. He was 88.
Dr. Burgess was named a member of the Order of Canada because of his medical research, teaching and his work with hospital outreach in the Arctic. By remarkable coincidence, on May 6, 1988, his friend Brent Boddy was at the same investiture ceremony, having been named to the Order of Canada for his part in the 1986 Steger expedition, an epic trek to the North Pole by dogsled.
Dr. Burgess had previously treated Mr. Boddy’s wife, Nala, an Inuit woman, for an emergency aortic valve replacement. After dinner in Rideau Hall, Ms. Boddy became faint so Dr. Burgess examined her. Fortunately, no serious heart event had occurred. In his memoir, Dr. Burgess wrote, “I am probably the only cardiologist to have looked after a patient in the presence of the governor-general and many newly invested members of the Order of Canada.”
Proud of the honour’s distinctive snowflake-shaped lapel pin, Dr. Burgess frequently wore it on his blazer when he flew. Occasionally, a customs official who recognized it would wave him through.
For two years, Dr. Burgess served as president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. In that position, he endured one of the most difficult meetings of his career: a four-hour battle to convince the finance committee to spend $6-million dollars to purchase a historic Montreal monastery for the college’s new headquarters. Even those who initially disagreed changed their mind during the meeting. Dr. Burgess felt the final act of his presidency was also the greatest triumph when he officially opened the new headquarters in September, 1992.
John Herbert Burgess was an only child adopted by John Frederick Burgess and his wife, Willa Reta (née McGinness). His birthday is listed on a baptismal certificate as May 24, 1933. His father was a surgeon who had to change his specialty after shrapnel hit his arm in the Battle of Passchendaele during the First World War. Without antibiotics, the arm became gangrenous and had to be amputated. He switched to dermatology. By the time of the elder Dr. Burgess’s retirement in 1951, he was a clinical professor of medicine at McGill University and head of dermatology at MGH.
The lesson he imparted to his son was the importance of perseverance. Being scientifically minded, John Burgess applied to McGill medical school. After the first year, discouraged by mountains of memorization, he was dismayed to find himself ranked 78th in a class of more than 200. He had previously become accustomed to being at, or near, the top of his class at Montreal’s Lower Canada College.
The encouragement of Andrea Rutherford, a pretty second-year nursing student at MGH, kept him going. After three more years, a growing affinity with the practical applications of medicine drove his class ranking up to No. 3. During the fourth year, having rotated through surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and psychiatry, with brief periods of training in the hospital environment, John Burgess was awarded a number of prestigious prizes. He and Ms. Rutherford, by then a qualified nurse, married two days after graduation in 1958. He described himself as being “On top of the world.”
Next followed four rigorous years as an intern and resident at MGH in which, Dr. Burgess said, interns were sometimes treated extremely badly by doctors. He once endured a 48-hour stint without sleep before being asked to leave an operating room. During this period, he decided the path to his future lay with cardiology. A Nuffield Fellowship allowed him to spent two years in a research lab studying the intricacies of the heart, and practising patient care on the ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England.
During this period, his wife discovered she was pregnant with the first of their four children. Two years later, the Burgesses were back in Canada with Dr. Burgess taking his Royal College Fellowship exams. It was no surprise to his wife when he passed.
Following the advice of a British professor, Dr. Burgess took further research training at the Cardiovascular Research Institute in San Francisco, then renowned as the best cardiac institute in the world.
“I had never encountered so much talent in one place,” Dr. Burgess wrote. The family remained there for two years. They drove back across the United States, camping along the way, for Dr. Burgess to take up his duties as cardiologist at MGH. He wrote, “At the age of thirty-three years I was finally able to earn a respectable living for my family.”
Even after an official retirement in 2009, Dr. Burgess remained active in the medical community. In 2011, he set up a medical scholarship fund through McGill University for Indigenous students. Its mandate was to support the training of future physicians in underserved regions in Canada.
The first recipient was Elaine Kilabuk, then a first-year medical student from Pangnirtung who planned to practise medicine in Nunavut. She wrote, “I was honoured to receive Dr. Burgess’s distinguished scholarship but more importantly to me, it brought the spotlight on a larger issue: the need for more Indigenous physicians.”
Dr. Kilabuk is now a General Internal Medicine physician who works at Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and the Ottawa General Hospital in Ottawa. She in turn created her own scholarship in 2021 to help support the medical training of an Inuk student from Nunavut at McGill.
Dr. Burgess’s influence in the Arctic endures through his scholarship’s continuing support of physicians who will take care of Inuit people, just as he did, but from within their own community.
He leaves his children, Willa, Cynthia, Lynn and Jay; and eight grandchildren. His wife predeceased him in 2001.