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Peter Burgess M.D.

Peter William Burgess, M.D., 87, of Eureka and Berkeley, CA, died peacefully August 21, 2013, in an afternoon nap at home in Berkeley. He had been diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in December 2007.


Burgess was born July 31, 1926 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to William and Mary Elizabeth Burgess. Born at a time when English Canadians were the dominant political presence in Quebec, he nevertheless embraced the French language and culture. As a teenage Canadian army veteran, Burgess contracted tuberculosis and spent three years in a TB sanatorium. When he was discharged from the "san" with a badly scarred lung, he dove into a neighboring lake, telling himself he would either swim to the other side or drown trying. To the end, he approached life with the same determination.


Burgess obtained his Medical Degree from McGill University in 1954, followed by a Pediatric Residency at Montreal Children's Hospital. He worked as Medical Director for Morrison Knudsen Kaiser Construction in Tehran from 1955 to 1959. In Iran, he developed a deep respect for the Iranian people and enjoyed speaking Farsi at every opportunity. The experience shaped his view of himself as "a citizen of the world, not any one country." After returning from Iran, Burgess completed a Residency in Diagnostic Radiology at Stanford University, followed by a one-year Radiology Fellowship at UCSF. Burgess, his first wife Ann, and six children moved to Eureka in 1965 where he spent the next thirty-one years in private practice with Humboldt Radiology, serving the two Eureka hospitals. In his earlier years in Humboldt County, he volunteered at well-baby clinics and was also the Open Door Clinic's first volunteer doctor in Arcata before committed, permanent practitioners arrived.


One of Burgess' most gratifying medical experiences was with Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) in Afghanistan in 2002. At the age of 76, he was a general practitioner in Zarange and the surrounding villages near the Iranian border, where he treated poor and internally displaced Afghans. He saw up to 30 or 40 patients a day. He subsequently tried to get back to Afghanistan, but both NGOs and governmental organizations were withdrawing medical efforts.


Burgess was very well traveled, from South America to Europe to Russia to China to Japan and on. He felt that travel was vital to understanding one's place in the world and that it ultimately humbled you. He was both sui generis and very generous, never placing too much importance on material goods, often remembering his time in India with Shri Satya Goenka who advised him that one's place in this world is transitory and one doesn't really own anything in it.


Friends and family were inspired by his enthusiasm for life and lifelong learning. He was addicted to public radio and public television. He was an avid reader, particularly of biography and history. He was always able to pull a poem, from memory, for any and all occasions. A diehard movie fan, he agreed with Francois Truffaut that movie-going was much more important than sitting down to a meal. A regular theater-goer and an enthusiastic fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, he attended Lamplighters' performances for five decades; he performed in North Coast Repertory Theater's 2004 production of Pirates of Penzance. Burgess was a firm believer in any consistent exercise that one enjoys. With his one good lung, he ran at least 17 marathons. In the days before his final, unanticipated bout of illness, he had been hiking in the redwoods of the Arcata Community Forest and doing his workouts at 24-Hour Fitness.


Burgess married Jill Korte in November 2009 after 25 years of a loving partnership. Burgess is also survived by a large family: Sister Sally Gibaut of Toronto; his oldest and dearest friend, Anne Garcia Dick of Grove, OK; first wife Ann Burgess of Magog, Canada, and their children: Stephen Burgess (Samantha Reslock) of Santa Rosa, John Burgess of Montreal, Matthew Burgess (Heather) of Toronto, Shirin Burgess of Montreal; second wife and constant friend Pam Mendelsohn of Emeryville & Arcata and their daughter Rebekah Burgess Abramovich (Mark) of Brooklyn, NY; Grandchildren: William Burgess of Brooklyn, NY, Amber Burgess of Fortuna, Harry Burgess and Zachary Burgess of Toronto, Shannon Carranco, Sophie Burgess, and Simon Burgess of Montreal; Great-Grandson Charles Berti of Fortuna; Nephew John Gibaut (Terri) of Geneva and Grand Nephew Peter Gibaut; Nieces Magdalena Burgess of Montreal, Barbara Burgess of Kallu, India, Hilary Gibaut, and Gillian Gibaut of Toronto. He is predeceased by his brother Charles Burgess, his sons William and Adam Burgess, and William's wife Katherine (Cassie) Burgess.


Burgess bought the Carson Hunting Lodge on Felt Road, Eureka in 1972. This beautiful property will remain with the family. A celebration of Peter's life is tentatively being planned for the spring when the world will be fresh and the rhodies in bloom.


Burgess saw a particular urgency for addressing climate change in order to secure our future on planet earth. Donations may be made in his name to Union of Concerned Scientists or 350.org.


Peter would have approved the length of this obituary as it forms historical record and supports the print media. He loved fetching the morning paper. In this respect, he was an old-fashioned man.


Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3, 2013
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