Tributes: Prof Derek Burke − the man who transformed UEA
PUBLISHED: 19:43 04 April 2019
Prof Burke was ‘an inspirational figure’ in the history of the University of East Anglia. It grew massively during his time, with lots more students and new buildings
In less than a decade Derek Burke transformed the University of East Anglia. He also established Norwich Research Park – the centre of pioneering scientific innovation in the fields of health and food.
Current UEA vice-chancellor David Richardson explains: “During his stewardship of UEA, undergraduate student numbers almost doubled and, in 1989, the university embarked on a major building programme including new student residence blocks (Nelson Court and Constable Terrace) and two academic buildings (the Queen’s and Elizabeth Fry) for the newly-founded subjects occupational therapy and physiotherapy.
“A major extension to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, as well as new sports facilities and students’ residences on the Village site, were to follow.”
Derek Burke was vice-chancellor from 1987 to 1995. One of his first actions was a clear statement of UEA’s mission as a premier research and teaching university. He saw the potential of strengthening research links across the Yare valley between UEA, the John Innes plant-science, genetics and microbiology centre, and the food research institute.
UEA won approval to develop a science research park along Colney Lane, establishing Norwich Research Park.
During his time in office he gave substantial leadership and guidance to further developments of the John Innes institute and the acquisition of The Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park.
When Norwich District Health Authority planned to move the hospital from the centre of Norwich, Derek Burke, supported by hospital consultants, argued the case for a site opposite UEA, near the research institutes.
In 1990 the health authority approved the building of a 900-bed hospital on the western edge of the campus, strengthening life- and health-science teaching and research. This was a crucial factor in the later establishment of a new medical school at UEA.
During the Burke years, UEA tripled the annual value of research grant income.
A driving force
Derek Burke was born in Birmingham on February 13, 1930. He went to the city’s Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School and the University of Birmingham, where he was awarded BSc and PhD degrees in chemistry.
During a research fellowship at Yale, he married Mary Dukeshire in a small Norwegian church in New Haven in 1955. They had four children: Elizabeth, Stephen, Rosie (who died in 2004) and Virginia.
After returning to the UK, he spent time at the National Institute for Medical Research, working on anti-viral and anti-cancer projects.
He was appointed a lecturer in biological chemistry at the University of Aberdeen in 1960 and moved to Warwick University in 1969 as founding professor of a new department of biological sciences.
From 1982 to 1986 he was scientific director and vice-president of Allelix Incorporated, Toronto – Canada’s largest biotechnology company.
Derek Burke became an active national figure, working for universities and Government.
When polytechnics were awarded the status of universities, there were concerns that the allocation of Government research funds would be diluted. Prof Burke was the driving force behind organising universities (mainly those established in the 1960s) into a lobbying organisation called the 94 Group.
He also founded the regional federation of colleges in Norfolk and Suffolk, and linking UEA with Suffolk and Otley colleges.
He chaired the UK regulatory committee on GM foods, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, for almost a decade from 1988, during which the first GM foods were approved in the UK. He was also responsible for advising the Government on the safety of genetically-modified foods and was active in the debate about the safety, effectiveness and ethics of genetically-modified foods and crops.
In 1992 Prof Burke was made a Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk – one of a number of deputies chosen because of their service to the county. They support the Lord-Lieutenant, the Queen’s local representative.
In 1994 he was appointed a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
Prof Burke also became a specialist advisor to the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee for eight years, a member of the European Life Sciences Group, and the European Union-United States Consultative Forum on Biotechnology in Brussels.
A bold leader
A committed Christian interested in ethical issues, Prof Burke was a member of the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England, chaired a working party on the social and ethical issues of cyberspace and became a member of the Archbishops’ Medical Ethics Advisory Group.
After retiring, Derek and Mary moved to Cambridge for 10 years as he continued his Government work. They returned to live in Cringleford, near Norwich, where they could renew old friendships. Derek became an enthusiastic chairman of civic heritage body The Norwich Society.
He was in office from 2010 to 2011. Vicky Manthorpe, the society’s administrator at that time, says: “Professor Burke promoted a collegiate style amongst the executive committee members and between the various committees.
“He and his wife were very hospitable and this, together with his good management, created a very amicable and productive working atmosphere.
“The Norwich Society is concerned with the proper care of the historic environment and acts as a watchdog on new development, and Professor Burke was an enthusiastic defender of the city’s heritage; and enjoyed the opportunities for site visits – such as… the Old Bishop’s Palace Porch.”
Mary Burke, who herself had MA and PhD degrees, died in 2014. She was 89 – the same age as her husband when he died in March.
“Derek Burke was both an effective manager and a bold leader, with a cheerful, energetic and optimistic nature,” says Prof Richardson.
“He was 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.
“He gave me the benefit of his guidance and support, for which I was always grateful. He will be very much missed by UEA and by me personally.”