Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. Its goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

Remembering Our Benefactor Mr. John Masterson Burke

April 7, 2015
Richard Sgaglio, Ph.D.

John Masterson BurkeOn April 7, 1915, The Winifred Masterson Burke Relief Foundation first opened its doors in White Plains, thanks to the generosity and foresight of our benefactor, New York philanthropist John Masterson Burke.

Today—exactly 100 years later—I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Burke would feel knowing that his vision for convalescence would someday become a fully recognized component of medicine. And that his idea for helping others could endure for a century and beyond.

Could he have known that his gift would allow for more than 2,000 injured sailors to be treated at Burke between 1918 and 1919? Or that his facility would be a leader in cardiac care and actually help found the American Heart Association in 1924? Or that Burke would pioneer the use of prosthetics in the 1940s and help mold the rehabilitation disciplines of physical, occupational and speech therapy?

Could he have imagined that in its first 30 years Burke would assist nearly 150,000 patients and more than a half million in its first 100 years of operation?

I would like to think his vision saw such possibilities.

But what do we know about John Masterson Burke and his idea for Burke?

Many of the healthcare issues experienced by patients in the early 1900s are remarkably similar to those today. Patients who were discharged from acute care hospitals after an illness or injury were often not ready to return to their families, homes and jobs.

Mr. Burke saw that the medical community was missing a much-needed interim place where patients could go and convalesce after being discharged from the hospital. He recognized that these patients needed to have additional medical treatment, rehabilitation and training so they could be active and productive again.

Upon his death in 1909, he bequeathed $4.5 million to begin the Burke story. In today’s money, that gift would be worth approximately $100 million—a fortune in any era.

Mr. Burke himself was born in New York City on July 2, 1812. His parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland, making him a first-generation American. He began working at 16 and spent much of his professional life traveling the world and working in manufacturing and shipping.

His career took him to far off lands such as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the sugar manufacturing operations of Cuba. Much of his fortune was created by purchasing large tracts of land throughout the United States, some of which were adjacent to the ever-expanding railroad systems that began to crisscross the country.

By all accounts, Mr. Burke was a modest man, spending carefully and investing wisely. His major personal purchase was a townhouse in midtown Manhattan at 18 West 47th Street where he lived for nearly his entire adult life. Mr. Burke never married and had few close relatives when he died at age 98.

During his life, Mr. Burke was often called upon for his business acumen and his insight into emerging technologies. An interesting fact: he saw the need to teach those who came after him. During his time managing industrial operations in foreign countries, he was adamant about teaching the locals the best ways of harvesting their crops and managing natural resources. Mr. Burke also became somewhat of a mentor to those he worked closely with and shared his success and experiences with others to help them become more independent in their lives.

Although he never worked in or had ties to the medical community, his legacy continues this mission today. At Burke, the organization that bears his family name, we continue to walk in his footsteps and ensure that each patient that comes through our doors achieves the highest level of independence possible.

All of us at Burke are grateful for his generosity and desire to help others. Mr. Burke achieved something that many of us aspire to: he left the world a better place than when he found it. I believe he would be proud of how all employees, past and present, have cultivated and cared for this wonderful incredible gift.

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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