Frederic Gerard Burke


In December, 1927, at age 10, my father disembarked from the S.S. Celtic which had sailed from Liverpool into the New York harbor. He was accompanied by his mother and two sisters, as well as his father, Grandpa Pat , who had left Ireland at 13 in poverty, soon after joined the British Navy and later the Merchant Marine. With his dad often away at sea, his mom working as a telephone operator, this young Frederic Gerard Burke saw himself as “the man of the family” which instilled a feeling of being respected even as he was bullied for being Irish in the schools he attended. During this time my father had two further formative experiences. The first was witnessing the profoundly calming effect a doctor had on his hysterical mother and sisters when my Aunt Marie took ill and coughed up blood. He told me he knew right away he wanted that power.

The second was meeting Dr. Frank Finnerty at his high school “vocation week” who introduced him to the ins and outs of getting into medical school, showing him it was, indeed, possible. He enrolled in college at Seton Hall, laden with guilt for not financially contributing to the support of his family or being there to haul up the coal ashes from the basement. Dad paid for the yearly fifty dollar tuition by working WPA jobs, selling shoes, and modeling cowboy paraphernalia in a department store. He got accepted into Georgetown Medical School and worked on the side as a U.S. Capital elevator operator and later nights in the Children’s Hospital lab. Aunt Marie, now working as a secretary, sent him five dollars a week to help. He survived a bout of tuberculosis in his third year of medical school to go on and do research that helped create the first oral penicillin . My father, Frederic Gerard Burke M.D., became an outstanding pediatrician, and ultimately the Chief of Pediatrics at Georgetown Hospital. He practiced and taught for over fifty years where time and again, I was privileged to witness his skill at bringing calm to worried and distraught families.

*Photo show my father, Fred and his sister, Marie, soon after arriving to the U.S.*

This story was told by Mary E. Barnes M.D.

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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead