Derek Burke, 1930-2019

Tributes paid to a leading biochemist who went on to become the third vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia

April 25, 2019
Derek Burke

A biochemist who took a senior role in industry before becoming an “inspirational” vice-chancellor has died.

Derek Burke was born in Birmingham on 13 February 1930 and studied at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School before going on to both a BSc and then a PhD in chemistry at the University of Birmingham. He took up a research fellowship in chemistry at Yale University but returned to the UK to work on antiviral and anti-cancer interventions at the National Institute for Medical Research.

In 1960, Professor Burke rejoined the academy as a lecturer in biological chemistry at the University of Aberdeen and then founding professor in a new department of biological sciences at the University of Warwick (1969-82). The years 1982 to 1986 he spent back in North America in a position in industry, as scientific director and vice-president of Canada’s largest biotechnology company, Allelix Incorporated of Toronto (1982-86). Subsequently, he returned to the UK to become the third vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-95).

During Professor Burke’s tenure at UEA, undergraduate numbers doubled and the campus was greatly enhanced through new buildings to house the recently introduced fields of occupational therapy and physiotherapy, an extension to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, additional student accommodation and further sports facilities.

Perhaps even more significantly, Professor Burke was committed to forging closer links with the nearby John Innes and Food Research institutes, which led to the creation of the Norwich Research Park. He lobbied for the construction of a 900-bed hospital on the edge of the campus, next to the research institutes. This strengthened research and teaching in the life and health sciences and thereby paved the way for the later medical school.

UEA’s current vice-chancellor, David Richardson, described Professor Burke as “a very special man and an inspirational figure both to the university and to me personally. We shared an academic interest in biochemistry, and that shared interest continued when I became vice-chancellor.”

Professor Burke was a prominent national and international figure in his field, even after retirement from the university. He chaired the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which saw genetically modified foods approved for the first time in the UK. He was a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as well as a member of both the European Life Sciences Group and the EU-US Consultative Forum on Biotechnology.

Professor Burke died on 15 March and is survived by his wife, Mary, and their three children.

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