John Chynoweth Burnham
{ "" }
Share John's life story with friends and family
Send an Email
Or Copy this URL to Share
Burnham John Chynoweth Burnham. July 14, 1929, Boulder, Colorado - May 12, 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 and 3 p.m. respectively. Arrangements by SHAW-DAVIS FUNERAL HOMES, Clintonville Chapel.

To Plant Memorial Trees in memory, please visit our Sympathy Store.
Published in The Columbus Dispatch from May 13 to May 15, 2017.
Memories & Condolences
Not sure what to say?
View Printed Guest Book
21 entries
October 17, 2017
I am so sorry to learn Dr Burnham's passing away. In 1993, I was an RA for him, and he taught me so many interesting things. From then on we were so good friends. He invited me for a dinner at his house and again and again emphasized that `I should not bring anything.`I then did not realize that at stake was probably alcohol. He was always an aspiration to me and I last saw him Istanbul where he and his wife came to visit. I will miss him so dearly...

Dr. M. Asim Karaomerlioglu
Bogazici University
July 28, 2017
John was a remarkable man, and one I was profoundly lucky to call mentor, colleague, and above all, friend. He was a great teacher and a brilliant scholar. I shall miss him every year that I attend the AAHM henceforth. My sincere condolences to the whole family, and especially to Marjorie.
Stephen Casper
July 5, 2017
I was one of John Burnham's graduate teaching assistants from 1982-1984. He was kinder to me than any of the members of my graduate committee and went beyond the call of what they should have done for mein al respects. His guidance and counsel were as much or more responsible for my earning my Ph. D. as anyone on my committee. His guidance and influence carried over into my teaching and research career from which I have recently retired as a full professor at Spelman College with that institutions's presidential awards for excellence in both teaching and research.
James Gillam
June 15, 2017
John Burnham opened up more new lines of inquiry than any other historian I know. He was also one of the most supportive and fun people in the profession. What a legacy.
Thomas Pegram
May 22, 2017
I was so sorry to learn about John's death. He was a fine scholar who ranged widely and wrote always with clarity and precision. He was also always eager to hear new work, even if it took an approach he disagreed with. He will be missed.
John Carson
May 21, 2017
I am so sorry to learn that John will no longer be here. I turned to him in the early 1960s when I began work in the history of psychology and psychiatry and he remained an inspiring colleague over the years as he became the Dean of that field in the US. I will miss him.
Dorothy Ross
May 19, 2017
I am so sad to learn of John's passing. I chatted with him and Marjorie in Nashville just two weeks ago. John was a remarkable person whose many valuable contributions to medical history will keep his memory alive for decades. He will be missed. My sincere condolences to Marjorie and the family.
Bruce Fye
May 17, 2017
Farewell to a colleague, a friend, and a mentor.
Stephanie Shaw
May 17, 2017
John's love of his work showed through his efforts to advance the field and mentor colleagues. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts are with Marjorie and family.
Kristina Ward
May 16, 2017
I was jolted to learn that John has passed away. He was a superb historian, a valued colleague, and to me personally a cherished friend and mentor. I shall miss him a lot and will never forget his many kindnesses to me. My sincerest condolences to his family.
Mark Grimsley
May 15, 2017
Sorry for your loss, may your hearts soon be filled with wonderful memories of joyful times together as you celebrate a life well lived.
C. F.
May 15, 2017
John was a superb colleague, fair-minded and good-hearted. He deeply believed in the values of the academy, and he made many contributions to the department, the university, and the profession. He will be sorely missed. Warm sympathies to Marjorie and his family.
Joan Cashin
May 15, 2017
John was a terrific teacher and mentor. His probing questions in seminars, his ability to generate intense discussions, and his demanding expectations for thorough research left a lasting impression on me. His concern for my career, my scholarship, and my family over the years meant an enormous amount to me and to my wife, Phyllis. His commitment to his own research agenda and his scholarly achievements inspired so many of us over the ears. Phyllis and I extend our condolences to Marjorie and the children.
Mel Leffler
May 15, 2017
He will be greatly missed. My condolences.
Marilyn Ogilvie
May 14, 2017
John was a wonderful mentor and friend, and I shall always feel grateful. Helena joins with deepest condolences to Marjorie and family.
Ray Fancher
May 14, 2017
John made a fundamental difference in my scholarship; he had much of great value to report about teaching; and he was and remained among the wisest mentors. I continue to speak about him to my wife, Marsha Lynn, and to my colleagues and students.
Mark Rose
May 14, 2017
My great mentor and teacher. Kevin White, Brighton, England.
May 14, 2017
John was a brilliant and generous intellect, always cheerful and eager to share his knowledge and have a laugh. He was a great friend and illustrious colleague.
Stephen Kern
May 14, 2017
I honestly can't believe John is no longer with us. He was a wonderful colleague in the History Dept. at OSU and a reliable presence long after his retirement. My deepest condolences to Marjorie.
Jane Hathaway
May 14, 2017
John was an amazing historian and friend. He contributed so much to the profession and to the OSU community. He will be very missed.
Susan Lawrence
May 13, 2017
Rita and I are saddened by his death. John was an important part of our lives and we miss him.
Austin Kerr
Invite others to add memories
Share to let others add their own memories and condolences