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Interview with Dr. John B. Burns

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Burns, John B. ; O'Neil, Dan


Dr. John B. Burns talks about his birth in Elmira and how he later opened the first certified pediatrician's office in the city of Binghamton, NY. He discusses his professional achievements in exchange transfusion combatting the RH factor, how sulfa drugs , penicillin, vaccination and immunization affected the practice of medicine. He also describes the evolution of his practice and struggles with accepting little or no payment before the advent of Medicare and Medicaid.




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Date Modified


Is Part Of

Broome County Oral History Project


30:34 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Dr. John B. Burns

Interviewed by: Dan O’Neil

Date of interview: 16 June 1978

Dan: Doctor, why don't we start out with the—you tell me your date and place of birth and the reason that you came to Binghamton and your life and experiences in the community.

Dr. Burns: OK let’s see, I was born on June 9th 1903 in Elmira, New York and ah my Mother died 3 weeks after I was born and the reason I mention that is because she died with an embolism which is quite unusual at this day and age to have that happen. Ah I went to the schools in Elmira and graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1922 and then I went from there I went to the University of Buffalo in the College of Arts and Science and the Medical College and I graduated from there in 1928 with an M.D. Degree and a Bachelor of Science in Medicine. Ah I interned at the Myer Memorial Hospital which at that time was called Buffalo City Hospital and ah after leaving there, I went to New York to the New York Nursery and Child's Hospital which is the oldest children’s hospital in America and it was Cornell's Pediatric Department and that’s where I did my pediatric training and after I left New York I went to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins and finished my pediatric training there at Hopkins and it was from there that I came to Binghamton in 1931. Ah you wondered why I came to Binghamton—well when I was in high school at Elmira Free Academy I used to come here to Binghamton to play football and basketball against Binghamton Central and ah I always, when every time I was at Binghamton, I always was quite impressed with the city. Ah at that time the big rivalry was between Elmira and Binghamton—ah Endicott, Vestal and Johnson City, of those weren't in it at all—it was between Binghamton Central and Elmira Free Academy.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And as I say that's the reason that I happened to come here or to think about it. When I was finishing at Hopkins, Dr. Park, who was the Professor of Pediatrics there asked me where I was going to practice and I told him I was thinking of Binghamton and he knew a Dr. Chittenden here ah who had taught him when he was a medical student at P. and S. in New York so he said, "Well I'll write to him and see what the prospects are." Of course this was at the bottom of the Depression.

Dan: Uh huh

Dr. Burns: And he wrote to Dr. Chittenden and I think it was Chittenden who suggested that I come up and see him and talk with him—so I came up one holiday I, I can't remember whether it was the 4th of July or Memorial Day or when it was and ah visited with him and he ah referred me to four different doctors here that I should go around and see and I went around to each one of the four of them but I didn't get any encouragement from any of them—not one. They all said, "Well if you can wait 6 years why you can probably make a go of it or not," but anyway ah I decided to come here to try it out anyway and we had some exciting times at that particular period. I tried to borrow some money from a bank in Elmira and they wouldn't loan me any and ah I finally borrowed $1500 from an uncle of mine and I went to the bank in Elmira to deposit it before transferring it to Binghamton and ah I asked them about what bank I should go to here and they said, "They're all all right, go to any of them," so the man that we rented the apartment from here at 124 Murray Street said the bank, I think it was called the Citizens Trust ah was a bank that would give you a loan easier than anybody else—so I figured that's for me, that's what I want—so I, I went down to the Citizens Trust and made arrangements to have the money transferred from Elmira and then we went to visit Marion's brother over the weekend and came back on Tuesday—was a notice on the bank that it had failed—it had gone under and ah so it's a wonder I didn't have a heart attack right there. Anyway I called Elmira and ah Elmira said that ah that they had gotten wind of it and they had held it up. We, as I mentioned, we lived at 124 Murray Street—rented an apartment there, we paid $55.00 a month and that included a garage and ah all the utilities and everything and ah Mrs. Burns finally got them to cut the rent down to $50 a month because our money was going pretty fast. At that time that I started here in Binghamton, you couldn't put an announcement in the paper that you were opening an office—it was unethical to do it nor could you—that you were moving your office anywhere I mean.

Dan: Is that right?

Dr. Burns: And now of course you can put it in which they should have allowed it anyway but you couldn't then and also we had another ah bad situation and that was that the ah telephone book had just come out so I couldn't get my name in the telephone book and of course it was ah as I said, the bottom of the Depression ah anyway I opened an office on the 25th of September 1931 and I never had a patient for the first 6 weeks and the interesting thing is that the first patient that I had came from Hancock—didn't come from from Binghamton at all. I never had more than one patient a day until the first of April, 1932 and on that day, I had four patients call me in the morning and from there on it began to break and to build up. Ah there are several interesting things about Binghamton at the time that I came here—as a matter of fact there were very few specialists—there was no one who did pediatrics exclusively—there were 3 or 4 doctors who were general practitioners who did a lot of pediatrics but none of them that just did it exclusively and other than the nose and throat men and ah the surgeons, although a great many of the surgeons ah did general practice too ah there were no specialists—they had a dermatologist here before I came but he died just before I came here.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: We had no urologist and no neurosurgeon, no dermatologist at all and no child had ever been cystoscoped here before I came here and I finally got one of the young surgeons to buy a child cystoscope and that was the first one that was ever cysticoped in this area.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns : Now of course we've got lots of urologists and ah the specialty that you need. Ah we, they had a situation at the City Hospital at that time when if you had a patient with say meningitis or scarlet fever or polio, you send it into the hospital, you lost control of it completely because this one doctor, who was a General Practitioner ah had charge of that contagious hospital. 

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And that irritated me quite badly because I mean I didn't see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to take care of my own ah patients with contagious disease because I’d had special training in it—so after I had been here about a year, I got ahold of this doctor one morning and I told him that ah I was going to get a lawyer and if necessary, I was going to go to court to see why it was that I couldn't go in and take care of my own patients. I think that upset him a little bit because he said, "Now if you ah just don’t say anything about it, I’ll let you take care of your patients when they go in.” Well of course it was just a question of time when the other doctors saw that I was going in, that they went in too.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And the arrangements that they had was that they had—the door was locked and the nurse had the key to it and she was the only one that could let you in or out so she knew those that had permission to go in, see, and ah but that, that was overcome. Had another interesting situation in Binghamton and that was ah the it was a great center for certified raw milk, which was ah a very excellent milk but it was raw. 

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And of course I had been ah brought up in the hospitals where I was in using pasteurized milk.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: Ah I was even accused of using dirty milk in my patients ah when using pasteurized milk—anyway eventually this dairy who did the, made the certified milk did pasteurize their milk too so that they finally had a certified pasteurized milk and then of course eventually why pasteurization took over completely but ah, ah, ah let’s see here—Oh I one ah factor that was ah helped me quite a lot when I came here was that I did have an opportunity to give some anesthetics for ah nose and throat men and for surgical patients ah I fortunately had had some experience at that at Nursery and Child’s so while I never enjoyed giving anesthesia, I mean it did help to keep me going. 

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: I also used to do quite a little lab work here ah for example if a doctor thought he had a child with an appendix and wanted a blood count done why I would go out and do the blood count for him of if they thought a child has polio, I would go out and do the lumbar puncture and examine the spinal fluid and call him back and give him the report on it. 

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: And I remember one very interesting ah ah day—I don't know whether this was would be interesting or not but ah there was either the 4th of July or Memorial Day ah that one of the doctors had a little girl in Lourdes that had a bloodstream infection and of course in those days you didn't have any sulfa or penicillin or any of those things, see and she had to be transfused or rather they tried to transfuse her but they didn't have anyone apparently available at that time that could do typing and crossmatching so I don't know how many hours I spent typing and crossmatching ah donors until finally we got one that they could use on the girl but it didn't do any good, she, she didn't survive anyway.

Dan: Umum—would that be the what they call the RH factor?

Dr. Burns: No—that one was not RH. This was a septicemia bloodstream infection with a strep infection. No, the RH factor of course when I started we didn't know that RH factor—we used to call it Icterus Gravis in the newborn. We knew that it was a very serious condition and a lot of them were deaf afterwards and a lot of them were mentally defective afterwards and a number of them died.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: And it wasn't until the RD factor was discovered that we could really do something and Dr. Vitanza and I did the first exchange transfusion on one of her patients here in the city ah whether it was done, others done in the area or not, I do not know but ah it took us 7 hours to do the first exchange transfusion—now after that we got so that each individual could do it in an hour or hour and a half.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: But this child survived anyway even though it took that length of time to do it ah it was interesting in being able to practice before the advent of sulfa and penicillin because practice of medicine is entirely different after the advent of those drugs—it just made it entirely different.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: Let’s see what else—in 19, I spent even three years in the service from 1942 to 1945 and ah then when I came back, there was already another pediatrician that had come in.

Dan: But you were the first pediatrician in the area.

Dr. Burns: I was the first ah pediatrician first one that did it exclusively and first one that was certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: Especially ah as you probably know, because you had to have it done when you were young, had to be vaccinated against smallpox before you could go to school—you also had to be protected against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus and I think one of the most interesting things today is the fact that it's no longer—you do not have to be vaccinated against smallpox—smallpox has been eradicated throughout the world.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: And the same thing will probably happen with polio if they can only get the people to cooperate well enough. Now of course you not only have to be inoculated against whooping cough and diphtheria and tetanus but you also have to be immunized against measles and rubella, that's 3 day measles ah mumps ah those three. Yes, measles, mumps and rubella ah they have to be done before they could go to school now. So there’s been a big advance in the immunization ah let’s see what else is there?

Dan: Now you spoke it took you almost a year to get ah started.

Dr. Burns: That's right.

Dan: You went from what, 6 patients or something like that you had at the end of the year.

Dr. Burns: Well, I don't, I had after my first patient, I say I never had more than one a day until April Fools Day—the last day of April. 

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And then I had four and from then on I didn't keep track of them. I—know one thing that when I filed my first income tax return that the Federal Government got after me and wanted to know why it was I hadn't previously filed it—they thought that there was something funny about it.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: When they found out that I had just started in practice I mean why it turned out to be all right.

Dan: Uh huh—Now when you retired, how many, how many patients did you have approximately, Doctor, that is in a year?

Dr. Burns: Oh gee I haven't any idea how many I had.

Dan: Can you figure just a guess? 

Dr. Burns: In a year—in the course of a year?

Dan: Yeah in the course of a year when you knew—just, just round figures. Just give you an idea how you built up your practice from nothing.

Dr. Burns: Well I know I used to work ah in the morning from—I’d give anesthetics from eight o'clock, from seven o'clock until about 8:30 and then start in the office at nine and work in the office all day and then go out and make house calls from about 8 o'clock at night ‘til midnight but I can't remember the ah when I look back now I don't see how I did it.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: Gee I—Marion?

Marion: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: Do you have any idea—what do you mean a day how many I saw in a day or—

Dan: No about—you know how many patients you had in about a year’s time, you know.

Marion: I don't have any idea.

Dr. Burns: Do you have any idea how many patients I had a year before I had to retire.

Marion: Oh Lord no—how are you this morning?

Dan: Good, Mrs. Burns.

Marion: Did you have a nice trip?

Dan: Very nice.

Marion: No, John, I haven't to be honest.

Dan: How many patients did you see on the average a day, Doctor?

Marion: Oh—

Dan: Would you know that?

Marion: Get out one of your books and I'll count them up just for fun.

Dan: No, no, just, just a guess.

Dr. Burns: Well we'd see them every fifteen minutes from 9 o’clock in the morning and take about a half hour out for lunch and finish up at 6 o'clock at night.

Marion: If you were lucky—it usually was later than 6 o'clock at night.

Dan: You saw one every fifteen minutes?

Dr. Burns: Yes but we worked others in between—emergencies we would have to bring in between too and inoculations I mean that we gave in between, see, so even with that, we figured 15 minutes but we had others coming in also.

Dan: Yeah—I know you were awfully busy—your office, your waiting room was packed—we used to try and ask for the first appointment after lunch so we could get in a halfway decent hour, otherwise we had to wait 2 or 3 hours.

Marion: (laughter) Sit there and wait—how true.

Dr. Burns: Well.

Dan: Now the—I think Doctor there's something that you ah left out—we'll see. Ah polio vaccination program, immunization program when they introduced the Salk vaccine—you participated in that program—could you tell me a little about that?

Dr. Burns: Well ah it was just the fact it was ah it was a killed vaccine and it was given by injection. 

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: In contradistinction to the Sabin vaccine which was given by mouth and ah course when the Salk vaccine first came out as I remember correctly, I think we discontinued our regular practice for several days and did nothing but immunize the children against polio.

Dan: Yes, I know that Alice, our oldest daughter participated in that program and in other words in administering that in order to see how effective it is was or get a control on it, why you kept either they didn't know whether they were getting the real vaccine or else a placebo.

Dr. Burns: Oh we, that must have been done experimentally because we always gave the regular vaccine.

Dan: Yeah but this was when it was first introduced.

Dr. Burns: Yeah.

Dan: To see how effective it was.

Dr. Burns: Yeah.

Dan: But Sabin—there was a Sabin vaccine but that was a live virus wasn’t it? 

Dr. Burns: Sabin is still live and it's a live vaccine and is given by mouth and ah of course they're both two good vaccines.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: But the Sabin is probably a little superior and much easier to administer too.

Dan: The Sabin is.

Dr. Burns: Yes, of course just given by mouth.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: But there have been some cases of polio resulting from the Sabin vaccine.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: They're rare but there have been cases discovered and there's been just recently a case of a father who picked up polio from after his child was immunized with Sabin vaccine.

Dan: Umum, yeah, so ah you of course didn't always make house calls did you—you had to terminate those as your practice advanced didn't you?

Dr. Burns: Well I made house calls right up until after I came back from the service and of course when I came back from the service, the practice of medicine had changed considerably because the doctors weren't able to make house calls and people got in the habit of going to the doctor' s office.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: So I continued to make house calls up until I quit practice on certain instances. I mean sometimes I mean just obligated.

Dan: Yeah.

Dr. Burns: But ah ah before I went into service I mean, I'd make house calls from the NOB down in Endicott up to Chenango Bridge and I've been even to Sayre, Pennsylvania to make a house call.

Dan: Gee.

Dr. Burns: Ah but I remember one down near Chemung one Sunday, of course we used to tie these up going out for a ride or something on Sunday too—we thought, “kill two birds with one stone.”

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: But Bingharnton has been very good to me ah I'm glad that I came here to practice—I've enjoyed it—I think Binghamton is an excellent city.

Dan: That's good.

Dr. Burns: And ah I think I would do over again. As I say I'm certified by the American Board of Pediatrics; member of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Central New York Pediatric Club; of course the Broome County Medical Society and the State Society and the AMA. Happen to be a life member of those—also the Academy of Pediatrics ah I don't know much else that ah.

Dan: Now when you retired didn't they honor you by over to Lourdes Hospital by the Maternity section over there?

Dr. Burns: Yeah, they donated ah ah incubator in my name over there it's one of the latest incubators and not only that but they gave Mrs. Sabini a pearl necklace and then they gave me this (pointing to mantle piece) over here which is worth over $300—that thing, that there.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And in addition to that they had $300 left over and ah they called and wanted to know what to, what to do with that so I suggested that they give that to Lourdes too. 

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: Which they did—to the pediatric department.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: When I came here of course Lourdes Hospital had no pediatric department at all. It really wasn't until after I came back from the service that Lourdes had any pediatric department to amount to anything and the one at the General is when I came here was very unsatisfactory—I mean it wasn't a good setup at all but I have in the past been head of the Pediatrics Department at both the General and at Lourdes and I did work at the General probably 90% of my 25 years over there. Now they both have excellent pediatric departments—very well run, excellent nurses and everything.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: It’s entirely different from what it used to be.

Dan: Umum. Now of course I have to transcribe this and some of this spelling here I’d like—this Icterus Gravis, how do you spell that?

Dr. Burns: I-C-T-E-R-U-S.

Dan: I-C-T—

Dr. Burns: —E-R-U-S G-R-A-V-I-S.

Dan: Gravis, OK, and in your internship, what ah what school was it in Elmira—you went to some school there in Elmira.

Dr. Burns: Well just the Elmira Free Academy.

Dan: But there was an intern—

Dr. Burns: No—interned in Buffalo.

Dan: In Buffalo.

Dr. Burns: At Myer Memorial Hospital.

Dan: That was it, what was it, Elmira?

Dr. Burns: No no Myer—M-Y-E-R.

Dan: Myer, OK.

Dr. Burns: It was Buffalo City Hospital is what it was then—now it's the Myer Memorial Hospital.

Dan: Umum and you retired in what year Doctor?

Dr. Burns: 1942.*

Dan: ‘42.

Dr. Burns: September 13th.

Dan: Umum.

Dr. Burns: Not by choice.

Dan: Not by choice.

Dr. Burns: No.

Dan: Unfortunately—OK well is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Dr. Burns: Well I was just trying to think whether there’s ah I’ll have to admit one thing and that is that I am sure in the 41 years that I was in practice that I saw a few miracles. 

Dan: You saw a few miracles.

Dr. Burns: I think, I think most doctors will tell you that they've seen some miracles too.

Dan: Is that right?

Dr. Burns: Yeah.

Dan: Great.

Dr. Burns: Of course we got credit for a lot of things and all that ah the Lord took care of.

Dan: Oh sure, well we know that we got to work together.

Dr. Burns: Yeah.

Dan: OK Doctor, well if there isn't anything else why I’ll turn this off. Would you like me to play it back for you?

Dr. Burns: I can 't—do you have any other questions that ah.

Dan: No I think you've covered it very well.

Dr. Burns: At least I told you all the hard luck that we had (laughter) that you wanted, history, that's history.

Dan: Oh that, that makes it interesting because it gives you an idea in other words most of our interviews why the people starting out you know were making $3.00 a week and when people realize that you try and raise a family on $3.00 a week why they're squeaking on 20 or 30,000 incomes a year why you wonder how they ever made it.

Dr. Burns: Well, I had patients, one I’ll never forget, used to bring me a chicken. Poor old fellow he was a dirt farmer from out near Montrose and he’d bring in the skinniest, scrawniest chicken that there was but his heart was in the right place. Had another one bring in a rabbit—I’d never eaten rabbit before in my life but we were glad to get ‘em.

Dan: Oh sure.

Dr. Burns: Well another thing that we did which, I, I’m kind of sorry it isn’t that way today and that is we took care of the charity patients for nothing—like I would serve 6 months on and 6 months off at the General Hospital and ah I’ll say one thing that those charity patients got just as good care as your wealthiest patients got.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: Wonderful care. See, now with Medicaid and Medicare and all of that, that’s a thing of the past and I think sometimes it's too bad. We never got a penny for taking care of any of the charity patients from the City of Binghamton and the Town of Union used to pay us a dollar a day for the hospital calls that we made and that was the only thing that we ever got.

Dan: Is that right?

Dr. Burns: I think ah sometimes it's just too bad that they didn't, the way it was of course welfare is so—Marion—can she listen to this when you play it back?

Dan: Sure.

Dr. Burns: I think it's too bad the way welfare is today, I mean it’s not like it used to be.

Dan: No, no.

Marion: Well he used to be on call for all the welfare, so-called “welfare patients.”

Dr. Burns: That's what I said.

Marion: There was no pay given at that time a t all.

Dr. Burns: That's just what I told him.

Marion: The doctors took care of them free of charge.

Dan: Yeah, yeah.

Marion: And he used to be on seeing them at a time.

Dr. Burns: 6 months.

Dan: Yeah, yeah.

Marion: Never less than 4 months out of the year.

Dan: Yeah, yeah, well things have changed an awful lot with the Medicare and Medicaid—some of them have gotten rich.

Marion: They sure have.

Dan: Yeah when you read about some of them that are collecting a quarter of a million dollars a year just from Medicare.

Marion: It's ridiculous isn't it?

Dan: Isn't it?

Dr. Burns: I have one other interesting thing that I feel pretty proud of and that is I have the smallest baby that ever lived at Lourdes—she only weighed one pound and 12 oz when she was born and she went down to one pound and 7 oz and she's graduating this June as a Registered Nurse in North Carolina.

Dan: Is that right?

Dr. Burns: I feel pretty, pretty proud of her. Her mother—

Marion: She's a beautiful girl.

Dr. Burns: —was convinced, was convinced she was going to live and I was convinced as much that she wasn't going to make the grade but she did.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And the best part is she is right mentally.

Dan: Uh huh.

Dr. Burns: And that’s the nice part, she writes to me 2 or 3 times a year and she's going to send me an invitation when she graduates.

Dan: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Burns: But those are things that make the practice of medicine worthwhile. I can't think of anything.

Dan: Well if you can't think of anything else, Doctor, I'll turn this off and play it back for you.

Dr. Burns: OK, maybe I better not listen to it.


*Dan: Dr. Burns would like me to make a correction in this interview—he retired in 1972, not 1942 as stated.

Date of Interview



O'Neil, Dan


Burns, John B.


30:34 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Burns, John B. -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Physicians -- Interviews; Elmira (N.Y.); Binghamton (N.Y.); Immunization; Vaccination; Medicaid

Pediatrician; Vitanza, Dr.



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