William Holmes Burns

William Holmes Burns

Died August 13, 2001

Bill was serious about research – and not just in his chosen field of virology. When house shopping in Milwaukee at one point in his career, he insisted on requiring a house with a retractable dome so he could install an observatory for his telescope. When he couldn’t find one, he lived in a hotel instead.

Bill came to Yale, where he earned a B.S. in biochemistry, via Lanier Senior High School in Macon, GA; he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1970, magna cum laude. He was the recipient in 1970 of the Massachusetts Medical Society Annual Award for Diligence and Outstanding Scholarship while a Harvard medical student.

Bill then conducted research in oncogenic virology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and in immune responses to viral infections at Mill Hill, London, before an internship and residency at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. Following research positions at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Microbiology at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Burns joined Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he occupied several senior hospital and staff positions in both medicine and oncology.

In 1978 Dr. Burns became professor of medicine and microbiology and director of its bone marrow transplant program at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, WI, keeping his home in Maryland and living in a hotel when no observatory could be found.

His most recent research focused on two main areas: the application of bone marrow transplantation to autoimmune diseases, in particular multiple sclerosis, and the development of targeted cellular therapies to address post-transplant complications such as lympho-proliferative disorders and as anti-cancer therapies. He was the first doctor in Wisconsin and the third in America to perform bone marrow transplant on a patient with severe multiple sclerosis.

The bibliography of Dr. Burns’s learned collaborative research articles on subjects related to virology and bone marrow transplantation is extensive and his contributions to the science and practice of bone marrow transplantation is enduring.

He passed away during a vacation in Seattle on August 13, 2001 and was laid to rest in his home town of Macon.

Gordon Sandford, an Assistant Professor at the Medical College, who worked about 20 years with Dr. Burns, remembered: “…I guess his greatest love was virology.”

Peter Trafton remembers: I hardly knew Bill while we were at Yale. But during our first year of medical school we were gross anatomy lab partners , and spent hours together, along with two of his high school classmates from Macon, Georgia . Bill and I soon realized that we had both thoroughly enjoyed Prof. Richard B. Sewall’s fabulous course on Tragedy. Bill was a biochemistry major, but clearly had a much wider view of the world. Every now and again, like a couple weeks ago, at the Gamm Theatre’s performance of Hedda Gabler, a memory of Bill makes me smile. I hear him quietly admitting that he had received an A on every paper and exam he wrote in Sewall’s course, including an essay about Henry Gibson’s tragic vision.