Margaret Burns M.D. '38

Writer: 
June 1, 2003
Margaret Burns M.D. '38

At a time when most of her contemporaries have long since given up office hours in favor of tee times, ninety-year-old Margaret Burns continues to see psychiatric patients in her native Asheville on a part-time basis.

" Practicing medicine is something that keeps you alive," says Burns, who was one of the first women to graduate from the Duke School of Medicine. "You want to know and be part of things more than people who aren't in this profession."

Medicine has been part of her life since she was a young girl. She was inspired, she says, by Louise Ingersoll, a doctor and former missionary who had set up practice in Asheville to treat women. Burns' mother fell gravely ill, and Ingersoll restored her to health. "When I saw that, I was sold. I thought, 'Oh, if only I could do something like that,' " says Burns.

While still just a teenager, she became an assistant in Ingersoll's office to learn more about medicine. In 1929, when Duke officials announced that they would open North Carolina's first, four-year medical school--and admit women on the same basis as men--Burns knew her path was set.

She completed the required undergraduate science prerequisites in three years, entering medical school without receiving a bachelor's degree. She was "socially backward" and clumsy as a child, she says, and clinical studies terrified her. "I was scared of every patient that came in there. I felt I was going to make a mistake in treating someone."

Those fears were soon quelled by an episode that would alter her outlook on life--and the course of her career. After graduating, she began her pediatric residency at a hospital in Dover, Delaware, and, within a few months, contracted tuberculosis. The disease transformed the young doctor into a patient for much of the next three years and forced her to undergo disfiguring surgery in which parts of several ribs were removed.

" I learned a lot of things about people that I wouldn't have if I hadn't had tuberculosis," Burns says. "There was an awakening as to how patients feel."

After recovering, she took an administrative position at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where a new medical school was being established for women. But in 1945, she returned to western North Carolina. "If you're from the mountains, you really never want to leave," she explains.

She worked in a pediatric hospital in Asheville in the late 1940s and, later, she was the first physician to work at a new regional blood bank. After several years there, however, she began to worry that the strain would be too much for her health.

Having developed an interest in group dynamics, Burns decided to give up general medicine in favor of psychiatry. After a residency at Wake Forest University's medical school, she spent several years on the staff of Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville that was affiliated with Duke until it was sold in the 1980s.

Burns went into private practice in 1963 and kept at it full time for twenty-eight years. Despite "retiring" in 1991, she continues to see a few patients and do some consulting. "I have durable brains and am still useful," she says emphatically.

Gwen Ashburn, a literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville who has conducted research on Burns for a book on the city's prominent women, finds the doctor inspiring. Burns was a pioneer who treated black patients during segregation and often went into jails to see mentally ill people, Ashburn says. But Burns, herself, dismisses the notion that she had an extraordinary career or even blazed trails for succeeding generations of female physicians.

" I don't think of myself as unusual for my background," she says. "Women should be in medicine. The profession is better with them in it."