Burnham, John Chynoweth. 14 July 1929, Boulder, Colorado - 12 May 2017, Columbus, Ohio.
John Burnham was an internationally-known historian best known for his work in the history of medicine, the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and sociocultural history, particularly in the United States. He published ten books and edited four more. Two of the books won prizes. One book was translated into Japanese, and two were translated into Chinese. Yet he also had great impact on scholarship with his eighty or more scholarly articles, many of which were, tellingly, reprinted in other places—some more than once.
Dr. Burnham was born to Florence and Willam Allds Burnham in Boulder, Colorado. As a child he also lived in Highland Park, Illinois. He graduated from West Seattle High School, a big-city public school where he obtained an extraordinary education. He went on to Stanford University on a scholarship, took a master’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, and then returned to Stanford, where he took a Ph.D. in history in 1958. Meanwhile he began his full-time teaching at Stanford and at Claremont Men’s College. He then spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow of the Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry. Following study at Johns Hopkins and Chicago as postdoctoral fellow, he spent more than two years attached to the research unit of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge MA.
After two years as assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University, he moved to The Ohio State University, where he served on the faculty from 1963 to 2002. Over the years, he taught thousands of students at Ohio State at every level, from first-year to graduate. He also taught postdoctoral resident physicians in the Department of Psychiatry. Awarded the honorary title of Research Professor of History when he became emeritus, he spent 2002-2003 as Bye-Fellow in Robinson College at the University of Cambridge in England. Thereafter he was associated with the Medical Heritage Center at Ohio State. He also served as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in Australia in 1967 at the University of Melbourne and in 1973 at the Universities of Tasmania and New England. In 1982, he served a term as Tallman Professor of History and Psychology at Bowdoin College and in 1999 he taught for a term as a distinguished foreign visiting professor at the University of Sydney in Australia. Over the years, he gave invited lectures not only in North America and Australia but in Japan and all over Europe.
Many other honors came to Dr. Burnham. At Ohio State, he was recognized with a Distinguished Scholar Award, and a library purchase fund and an endowed lecture series were named in his honor. He was a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Division 26 of the American Psychological Association presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his leadership in the history of psychology. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Association for the History of Medicine in 2014. On several occasions, he gave prestigious invited, named lectures. He held committee appointments in many national and international organizations and was president of the Midwest History of Science Junto and, in 1990-1992, president of the American Association for the History of Medicine.
Beyond the formal record, Dr. Burnham served as a powerful influence among his colleagues to uphold disciplinary standards in history writing, especially in the difficult areas of the history of science and medicine and cultural history. He was an informal mentor to many graduate students and young historians form all over the United States and many other countries, some briefly, some for a lifetime, and many just through his unacknowledged peer reviewing and editing. He formally served as editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences from 1997 to 2000.
His own publications tended to have one consist theme: he pioneered many new fields and lines of inquiry and revised old ones. He was one of the first to offer strong evidence of the influence of culture on science. A book collecting some of his papers was called Paths into American Culture. His most striking finding was that, contrary to what propagandists and journalists had written, American Prohibition on the whole was not a failure but was successful in diminishing the bad social effects of alcoholic beverages. One of his early papers was reprinted several times because it showed how cultural change influenced scientific change in psychiatry and psychology. He wrote the first history of the gasoline tax in the United States, an article that helped set off the field of the history of the automobile. Later he ventured again into the field of history of technology with a masterful history of accident proneness. He was one of the very first to bring the history of sexuality into mainstream history. And he was the first professional historian to work full time on the history of psychiatry. His paper on the history of editorial peer review, published in JAMA in 1990, was, incredibly, the first major scholarly work on the history of this essential institution in science and medicine. In 2008, historians of natural disaster celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Dr. Burnham’s pioneer call for a history of that field.
He was one of the very few to contribute to the history of very modern historiography. He was particularly effective in discerning eras in the history of medicine of the twentieth century, most recently in a master narrative and probably his most influential book was a history of popularizing science and health care in the United States, Healthcare in America: A History, in which he used social science as well as other sources to explain the role of science in broader American history. The book which had the largest circulation was a heavily revisionist account of Bad Habit: Drinking, Smoking, Gambling, Taking Drugs, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. Some of his later books are still winning their way in one field or another. At the end of his career, he wrote a synthesis that established a new narrative and reconceptualization of the entire field of the history of American health care.
John Burnham was a historian’s historian. In 1987, a group of leading, mostly young colleagues dedicated a collection of essays to him, Psychological Testing and American Society, and this was widely recognized as an implicit festschrift in his honor (“Few scholars have influenced their fields as John C. Burnham has, and we are pleased and proud to dedicate this book to him”). His paper on the mystery of why there was no lead poisoning has been held up as a model of a historical detective story. His last major paper, ‘The Death of the Sick Role,” re-set the chronology of the field of the recent history of medicine. And just before that, he had named a new phase in the scholarship in another field, “The New Freud Studies.”
He continued to publish after his retirement and to mentor younger scholars. With his wife of 59 years, Marjorie (Spencer), he continued to travel all over the world. He was a member of Maple Grove United Methodist Church and supporter of classical music and the arts in Columbus. He is survived by his wife, Marjorie Spencer Burnham, who was a partner not only in his life but in his career; his four children, Leonard, Abigail Barnes, Peter (wife Cyndy), and Melissa Carlston (husband Christopher); and his four grandchildren, Allison (Barnes), and Aria, Autumn and Amelia (Carlston).
Donations, if you wish, to the John Burnham Library Fund at Ohio State University, the John C. Burnham Lecture series in The History of Medicine/Science at Ohio State University and the Maple Grove United Methodist Church. Calling Hour and Memorial Service; Maple Grove United Methodist Church, Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm, respectively. Arrangements by Shaw-Davis Funeral Homes, Clintonville Chapel.