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“An honorable person who really cared about Yale”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Spring


At a memorial service for the medical school’s 14th dean on January 17, friends, family, and colleagues honored a devoted academic physician who tweeted about iodine deficiency and cared for a whale with renal failure. They remembered a fun-loving man who cheered the animals at Mystic Aquarium’s sea lion shows; sported a fake earring at reunion; and relished sailing and tennis. And they recalled a kind mentor who was unfailingly supportive of colleagues.

Gerard N. Burrow, M.D. ’58, HS ’66, died on December 14 at the age of 80. He served as dean of the medical school from 1992 until 1997, when he became the David Paige Smith Professor of Medicine Emeritus and professor emeritus of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences. He had also published widely in the field of endocrinology. But Burrow is remembered as much for his warmth, humor, and remarkable range of outside interests as for his medical accomplishments.

“He was a brilliant academician,” Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, said in an interview, and “an honorable, gentle, nice person who really cared about Yale.”

Burrow’s son Peter put it another way, calling his father “a people’s dean.”

When Burrow accepted the deanship, recalled Michael Kashgarian, M.D. ’58, HS ’63, FW ’65, his best friend since medical school, he “brought a new atmosphere to the school.” Burrow worked to improve relations between the basic science and clinical departments, and to strengthen ties to Yale-New Haven Hospital, said Kashgarian, professor emeritus and senior research scientist in pathology.

A strong believer in the Yale system, Burrow wrote in 1999 that modern medicine continues to require a “liberal arts physician.” Such a physician, the object of the Yale system, he wrote, is trained in science and the values of medicine, prepared for uncertainty, and able to adapt. He had previously expressed concern that medical schools in the 1990s were being forced to “carry out worldly business … such as industry-directed clinical trials and increasing amounts of purely clinical practice,” potentially blurring their academic focus. “He probably was the last of a group of medical school deans from an era when academic medicine was simpler, more idealistic, and less of a business,” Alpern noted.

Though not always at Yale, Burrow maintained connections to the school throughout his career. He helped to set up a high-risk obstetrics clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital, raised money for a fitness center in Harkness Dormitory, and led the board of trustees of the Cushing-Whitney Medical Library. He also wrote A History of Yale’s School of Medicine: Passing Torches to Others. One of Burrow’s metal sculptures, made when he took up welding as a hobby, resides at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

After completing his residency at Yale in 1966, Burrow joined the faculty and remained at Yale for the next 10 years, leaving for the University of Toronto in 1976. From 1988 to 1992, he served as dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, where he oversaw major infrastructure projects and recruited distinguished scientists—and sat on a stool over a pool of water for the annual Dunk-a-Dean event. (“History does not record,” said his son Peter, “how many times I stood in that line.”)

Burrow was an authority on iodine deficiency as well as on thyroid and other medical disorders during pregnancy. Early in his career, he had studied the prenatal effects of the Nagasaki bombing with the United States Public Health Service in Japan. What he learned there sparked a lifelong interest in maternal and fetal health that led to dozens of publications over the ensuing decades. He co-authored a book on thyroid disease with Kashgarian, and also wrote a popular reference work on medical disorders of pregnancy that ran to six editions.

After retiring from Yale, Burrow chaired the board of the UConn Health Center. He also became president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation, the parent organization of Mystic Aquarium. He helped establish a formal research program there, offering one veterinarian a plastic beluga whale to which he’d attached a clay thyroid gland as a suggestion for a research topic. The aquarium’s Animal Parent program, which invites supporters to adopt a whale, penguin, or other aquarium animal, inspired Burrow to set up an Adopt-a-Rare-Book program at the Medical Historical Library.

An aquarium colleague, Tracy Romano, Ph.D., recalled the day Burrow took her sailing shortly after she was hired. He handed the inexperienced Romano the helm, showing a faith in her ability that buoyed her. “He made everyone feel important and special,” Romano said. “His biggest contribution was the passion he had for life, and the compassion he had for people.”

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