Schulich school of Medicine and Dentistry logo Medical Biophysics Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

Professor Alan C. Burton was the Head of the Biophysics Program at Western University for 22 years. Remembered for his energy and enthusiasm, the gifted teacher and internationally renowned researcher, who is considered the grandfather of Biophysics.

On April 7, his memory was honoured with the Alan C. Burton Lecture. Now in its 25th year, the annual Lecture celebrates the legacy that Burton created, and features a keynote research presentation.

The springtime event provides faculty, staff and former students with a time to reflect on Burton’s contributions to the Department of Medical Biophysics, the University, and the field of medical biophysics as a whole. And for those who were fortunate to have him as a teacher or mentor, they will no doubt once again consider the impact he had on their careers.

Professor Emeritus Ian MacDonald, PhD, is just one in a long line of faculty members who was Burton’s student, mentee and colleague.

Hailing from Thunder Bay, MacDonald came to Western with an interest in science, but with no idea which discipline to pursue. “After looking at a few different areas, I discovered biophysics, where I could apply my appreciation for physics to the understanding of human biology,” he said, noting that this was in 1966 when the Program was small and very interdisciplinary for the time.

Most of the material for the Program stemmed from Professor Burton’s book, “The Physiology and Biophysics of the Circulation”. MacDonald recalls that the book was a great teaching tool in that it presented the facts, but also included small sections of text somewhat controversial in nature that can best be described as musings from Dr. Burton. “This made the textbook almost conversational and taught us to think about and interpret data rather than just memorize it,” said MacDonald.

Alongside his three other classmates, MacDonald also had the good fortune to take the environmental biophysics course based on Burton’s book, “Man in a Cold Environment”.  

Textbooks in hand, the classmates were often found with Burton, other faculty members and students in the coffee room, where teaching based on the concepts and logic applied to observations and critical thinking was done. “Most of the faculty and students took part in this social and teaching environment,” said MacDonald, “and Professor Burton made us feel part of a family.”

After graduation, MacDonald headed to England to complete his PhD. A post-doctoral position as a Nuffield Fellow at the University of Nottingham followed. And just eight years after leaving Western, MacDonald returned — this time as a teacher.

Within three years, he came home to the Biophysics Program and began to help out with the very same lab course he had taken with Burton.

It’s been 34 years, and MacDonald continues to teach the same third-year lab course he took nearly 50 years ago which was developed by Burton. And he believes today’s students are still benefitting from Burton’s expertise as the coursework was based on his book and a few examples for the lab have been retained.

And despite the passage of time, students are also benefitting from a spirit and culture that Burton developed in the Department.

“Professor Burton’s spirit is still here,” MacDonald said. “He could take concepts and apply them in ways that might not be expected, he created opportunities for students to think critically, and most importantly he believed that science could change the way you look at the world about you.”

It’s a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.