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Burke retires from clinical practice after 33 years

Thursday, July 25, 2019
By Aaliyah Bowden
J Burke retirement

Thirty-three years after joining Duke Neurology, Professor James R. Burke, MD, PhD celebrated his retirement from clinical practice Tuesday night with faculty, staff, and family at The Pit restaurant in Durham. 

In addition to treating patients at Duke for more than three decades, Burke has made many contributions to research for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases, contributing to more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles. Burke will continue to conduct additional studies after his clinical retirement.

“Jim is an extraordinarily dedicated physician and scientist but even more so than that, he’s just a wonderful and reliable friend with the greatest sense of humor I ever saw; and someone that I could count on, at any time as a resident,” said Dennis Kolson, MD, a Professor at University of Pennsylvania, who trained alongside Burke.

Kolson and Peter King, MD who completed their residency with Burke in 1989, flew from Pennsylvania and Maryland and joined the other guests to celebrate with him.  

Burke, 66, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 1981, he earned a PhD in Biochemistry from Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, with his thesis focused on the accuracy of protein synthesis in the aging process.  

He returned to New York within the same year and attended State University of New York at Downstate Medical Center and earned his Medical Degree in 1985. That same year he interned at Staten Island University Hospital before starting his residency at Duke University a year later. Burke completed his residency in 1989 and his fellowship in 1991 at Duke. 

“When I met Jim, what struck me most about Jim was that he was very caring and was the funniest person I’ve ever known,” said King, who is Birmingham VA Medical Center’s Vice-Chair and Chief of Neurology. 

Burke, left, poses alongside his longtime colleagues James McNamara, MD, and Wolfgang Liedtke, MD, PhD. Photos by Aaliyah Bowden.

“In a doctor’s residency, it’s stressful ---being on call, being sleep deprived, a lot of responsibilities, and Jim would have these social outlets where he would come to our houses, and we would go out to get drinks or something. Jim was able to cut through all that tension with a couple one liners or a couple of jokes, and totally diffused any tension that was building up. It allowed us to thrive,” said King.

Burke’s early research at Duke examined the role of phospholipases, an enzyme in charge of breaking down phospholipids, for Alzheimer’s disease. He also worked on a team with the late Allen D. Roses, MD, to study the genetics of Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative diseases. Burke was the first person to describe Haw River Syndrome, a neurodegenerative condition among five generations of an African-American family that had previously only been seen in Japan. Burke served for years as the Division Chief for Behavioral Neurology and has completed over 100 experiments with medications to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. He has received numerous grants and awards.

“I will miss mostly his kindness, generosity, his knowledge, his time, his ability to organize a team, to celebrate our wins, and commiserate on us with our loses,” said Nurse Practitioner Candace Boyette, who worked with Burke at Duke’s Memory Disorders Clinic for almost 10 years. 

Burke and Boyette have worked together on studies, in which Burke served as the primary investigator for research.  Boyette added she plans to stay in contact with Burke for the rest of his life. 

“He’s one of my very best friends, he’s the brother I’ve always wanted,” Boyette added. 

Burke is married to Diana Burke and they have five children: Tim, Sean, Caitlin, Claire, and Emily. During retirement, Burke said he is going to continue to work on research projects and ongoing clinical trials while taking time to learn more about gardening, birds, and continuing to collect bees.