In Memoriam

John C. Burnham (1929–2017)

Stephanie J. Shaw | Oct 1, 2017

Historian of American Psychology and Psychiatry

John C. Burnham. Courtesy The Ohio State University Photo ArchivesJohn Chynoweth Burnham, professor of history at Ohio State University (OSU) from 1963 to 2002, died on May 12, 2017. Best known for his work in the history of science and medicine and described as “the dean” of his fields by historian Dorothy Ross, John had a reach that far exceeded his fields of scholarly expertise.

John was born on July 14, 1929, in Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from West Seattle High School in Washington state (he was proud of his excellent urban public-school education), he accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, where he took his bachelor’s degree. He went “east,” as he put it, to the University of Wisconsin for his master’s degree, after which he returned to Stanford for his PhD (1958). John always talked more about his teachers than his schools. After he informed his seminar students that the course descended directly from Frederick Jackson Turner, he went through the lineage of his teachers and theirs. He taught students never to stop asking questions and searching for answers, and he expected deep research, concise writing, and historiographical significance.

John’s own work regularly disrupted traditional historiography, and altogether, he created and enjoyed an enviable career that extended far beyond his retirement. He spent most of his academic career at OSU, but he also taught and held prestigious research fellowships at the universities of Sydney, Cambridge, Chicago, and Melbourne; Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities; Bowdoin College; and numerous other institutions. He was president of the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) from 1990 to 1992 and edited the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences from 1997 to 2000. He lectured internationally, and scholars have published anthologies and held special conferences to celebrate the significance of his pioneering work to their fields. John published 10 monographs and nearly a hundred articles over the course of his career. His last book, Health Care in America (2015), is a masterful history of medical practice in the United States that stands as a fitting culmination of his scholarship.

John was deadly serious about his work and historical scholarship generally. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he had a tough, often unreadable shell. He was also kind, generous, and concerned about other people’s happiness. Susan Reverby described him as “an early supporter of young scholars within the AAHM and wherever we turned up to give papers if he was at the same meetings.” James Gilliam, who studied Chinese history at OSU, was John’s teaching assistant during the early 1980s and said that John was “as much or more responsible for my earning my PhD as anyone on my committee.” John and his wife of 59 years, Marjorie Spencer Burnham, always hosted newcomers to the history department soon after their arrival. In 2001, Marjorie founded a history of medicine lecture series for the OSU Medical Heritage Center and the history department. They were also instrumental in the funding of an endowed lectureship in the medical school. When two colleagues died, John located their manuscripts and found people to finish them; both books won prizes.

As serious as John was about scholarship, he had a wicked and deadpan sense of humor. He could appreciate being the subject of the joke himself. After he told me about the fabulous prize his book After Freud Left (2012) had just won, I asked, “Which prize?” He answered that it was for the cover. (The designer really was brilliant.) Although it might not have been a joke (one could not always tell with John), when it came time to talk with one of his children about sex, John presented him with a two-volume work on sex education and insisted that he would answer any questions his son had once he finished reading it.

John will long be remembered not only for his contributions to the history of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, science, technology, and culture, but also for all the ways he supported his university, his profession, and countless individuals in and outside the profession.

Stephanie J. Shaw
Ohio State University

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