Joshua Harold Burn

Elected in 2015

Born on 6 March 1892 in Barnard Castle, County Durham, UK
Died on 13 July 1981, Oxford, UK


  • Burn worked on the internal control of the body by the auto(matic)nomic nervous system, carrying out seminal work on the release of noradrenaline from sympatheric nerves and introducing the controversial Burn-Rand hypothesis
  • He was known for the simplicity for his research, on which he wrote: “methods are good if they are accurate, rapid and simple, and bad if they are inaccurate, slow and need skill”
  • Under his leadership from 1937, a widely-acclaimed pharmacology department was established in Oxford, through which he became “the scientific father of an enormous family” including 60 Professors and Directors
  • Although graduating in Physiology from Cambridge and also completing medical training, he originally planned to study Chemistry (he complained about the “cheerless faces and shabby clothes” of the chemists)
  • He was awarded honorary doctorates by Yale University, and the Universities of Mainz and Bradford, and was an honorary member of the German Pharmacological Society and the Czechoslovakian Medical Society
  • He joined the British Pharmacological Society at its creation in 1931, and gave the first presentation at the very first Society meeting on ‘Is cocaine a sympathetic stimulant?’ He then served as Secretary, Treasurer, Foreign Secretary and Editor of the British Journal of Pharmacology. He received the Wellcome Gold Medal in 1979

Personal life

  • Burn reportedly jeopardised the outcome of his second year exams at Cambridge by spending his first two years debating politics
  • He served in the army from October 1914 but was released from duty in 1917 in order to complete his medical studies
  • Long before it was fashionable, he actively campaigned against smoking and even criticised colleagues for smoking at the lab bench

Published: 19 Nov 2015 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame