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Frank R. Burton obituary: doctor, professor, researcher

Dr. Frank R. Burton, whose research on chronic pancreatitis helped dispel the widely held assumption that sometimes led patients to be incorrectly labeled as problem drinkers, died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (lung disease) at Saint Louis University Hospital on Monday (Aug. 2, 2010). He was 58.

Dr. Burton, a professor of internal medicine, suffered a heart attack in June while vacationing, but was recovering well when it was discovered that he had advanced lung disease. The illnesses were determined to be unrelated.

"It was an unusual presentation of pulmonary fibrosis, and many people learned a lot taking care of him," said Dr. Burton's wife, Dr. Mary S. Burton, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University. "He developed a complication on July 31 that was too big a hurdle to overcome, although he and all the doctors and nurses taking care of him tried so very hard to do so."

The funeral Mass for Dr. Burton will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Saturday (Aug. 7) at Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

Dispelling a Myth

Dr. Burton's chronic pancreatitis research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, showed that the disease is strongly associated with smoking and not solely tied to alcohol use. His findings noted that smoking cessation was as important, if not more so, than stopping alcohol use in halting the disease's progression.

He was a founding member of the NIH-funded North American Pancreatitis Study group, which published the research. It included the top experts in pancreatic diseases across North America, and Dr. Burton's work gave Saint Louis University a lead role in the study.

"Frank chose a very challenging professional career. Pancreatic disease is an extremely difficult disease to take care of, and he was a very caring physician with his patients," said Dr. Brent Tetri, interim director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Saint Louis University. "As more results from his research are published in the upcoming years, his legacy of helping those with pancreatic disease will continue."

'Best Doctor in America'

Frank Ransom Burton was born on Nov. 15, 1951, while his father was in the Navy, stationed in Honolulu. He was the oldest of Jim and Jeanine Burton's 10 children.

He graduated from Holy Cross High School in Austin, Texas, in 1970 and went to St. Edward's University in Austin, where he received his B.S. degree in 1974, a year after marrying his classmate, Mary Stinson. Each of them became "Doctor" Burton in 1980, when they graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Oklahoma City.

The newly minted Drs. Burton came to Saint Louis University Hospital for residency. After his internship, he served as a fellow in gastroenterology at St. Mary's Health Center and Saint Louis University School of Medicine from 1983-85. He practiced at St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center and St. Mary's, then spent the bulk of his career at Saint Louis University, including Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center.

Dr. Burton joined the SLU faculty in June 1985 and developed the hepatobiliary and pancreas therapeutic endoscopy program. He served as the medical pancreatologist for the pancreas transplant program and director of the gastroenterology physiology laboratory at SSM St. Mary's Health Center.

Dr. Burton, who had a special interest in cystic fibrosis and pancreatitis, served as co-director of the adult cystic fibrosis digestive disease program at SLU. He also served concurrently as director of endoscopy at Saint Louis University Hospital.

He was a member of many organizations, including Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society, the Gastroenterology Research Group, the North American Pancreatic Study Group and the Midwest Gut Club. He was a founding member of PancreasFest, a yearly conference aimed at providing medical professionals with a better understanding of the pancreas.

His awards included The American Chemical Society Outstanding Senior Award from St. Edward's University in 1974; the 1999 Outstanding Alumni Award from St. Edward's University, and he was included in "Best Doctors in America," by Best Doctors Inc. from 2001 to the present.

Teacher and 'Saint'

During his 30-year medical career, Dr. Burton was the principal investigator or co-investigator in numerous funded research studies; was a much sought-after presenter and a prolific writer who published dozens of original basic and clinical investigations and case studies.

Dr. Burton's vast knowledge of his field was eagerly shared with his students.

"When it came to teaching, Frank had the patience of a saint," said Dr. Charlene Prather, professor of internal medicine who worked with Dr. Burton for more than a decade. "He really gave students time to learn."

"Fellows will never forget meeting at his house to play cards and going to visit the cabin he built by hand at his farm."

Patients were said to be equally fond of Dr. Burton.

"Patients loved him," Prather added. "He would always go an extra mile to make sure they were well taken care of. He had a very generous heart."

"It would be very hard to find someone who did not like Frank," said Mary Burton. "He was somebody who was always interested in 'the other person' - asking questions, wanting to know what they were interested in and why, whether the person was a fellow medical researcher or a young nephew."

Family First

He stayed close to his nephews and the rest of his large, extended family.

"We had 'Cousin Camp' for 10 years at our farm south of Potosi," Mary Burton recalled. "Many of the 40 cousins attended camp at different times for a week away from their parents, went on field trips, did crafts, cooked, cleaned and walked all over the farm."

Dr. Burton was a man of great faith who loved trains, fire engines and firefighters, ball caps, the Discovery, History and Learning channels, and making the farm a place where family and friends could gather, play and walk the trails named for various children.

He was a diligent sports fan, giving much of his zeal to Billiken basketball, University of Oklahoma football, the Cardinals and the Rams. When he wasn't watching, he was doing, having coached most of his children in basketball.

He was preceded in death by two infant daughters, Sarah and Katie Burton.

In addition to his wife, Mary S. (nee Stinson) Burton, M.D., of St. Louis, Dr. Burton is survived by his children, Ben (Ann) Burton of Lee's Summit, Mo., Rebecca (Tim) Kalhorn of Raleigh, N.C., Anastasia Burton of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Burton, Sam Burton and Isaac Burton, all of St. Louis, and three grandchildren, Peter, Frank and Edward.

He is also survived by his parents, Jim and Jeanine Burton of St. Louis, and his siblings, Bob (Amy) Burton of Oklahoma City, Okla., Richard (Peggy) Burton of Sunset Hills, Mo., Jean Deegear of San Antonio, Texas, Janet (Breck) Churchill of Lenexa, Kan., James "Max" (Michelle) Burton of Frontenac, Tom (Sue) Burton of Naperville, Ill., John (Rouzanna) Burton of Buckeye, Ariz., Joe "Lee" Burton of Hingham, Mass. and Anne Marie (Larry) Hinkle of Shippensburg, Pa.

Visitation for Dr. Burton will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Kutis Funeral Home, 10151 Gravois Road. The funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7, at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, 5020 Rhodes Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63109.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Frank Burton Memorial Research and Education Fund, c/o Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Saint Louis University, 3635 Vista Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Some information for this story was derived from the Saint Louis University news release about Dr. Burton's death.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.