Monday 6th September 2021
Life stories: Dr Burton, Finborough Court Housing
Dr Burton, 91, lives at our housing scheme in Great Finborough, Suffolk. Pursuing a career in medicine when few women did, she specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology and surgery
Born in 1930 and brought up in Hastings by Christian parents, as a child Dr Burton attended an Independent Calvinistic Chapel. An incident during the Second World War, when she was 11, proved a defining moment for her faith. “The house of some friends of ours was bombed. Thankfully they were out. I remember looking up and seeing half the house hanging outside. The solemnity of ‘life and death’ convicted me of my need for personal salvation. I prayed from Acts 16, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and the answer came, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’”
From an early age, she appreciated the importance of helping others. Her grandmother was a Lady Visitor with our organisation, then known as the Aged Pilgrims’ Friend Society. “I remember accompanying her to see an elderly gentleman, ‘Poor Willie’, in his tumbledown cottage,” says Dr Burton. “She gave him his pension – something the organisation did back then – along with a few goodies.”
Her father had been a stretcher-bearer during the First World War and was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal. “I once overheard him talking to another old soldier of how he’d gone into No Man’s Land to rescue someone.
They had disturbed a duck and it flew up and gave the game away to the German snipers. My father received a bullet wound in the arm and was invalided home. That bullet probably saved his life – the rest of his regiment went forward and most of them were killed.”
Dr Burton education was intermittent as due to the war schools had either been evacuated or closed. Her parents bought her Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia (10 large volumes) which she read with great pleasure. After the war, a small private school opened and it was here that a kind form mistress took a special interest in her future career. “She asked me what I’d like to do after school and I said, ‘Oh probably nursing.’ She said, ‘I think you’ve got the ability to pursue a university education’ and I said, ‘All right, I’ll do medicine then.’”
The path, however, was not easy. In attempting the MB External, she failed Physics prompting her to leave home to study at Norwood Technical College. “Here I had superb tuition so that I understood the principles of Physics and at my second attempt passed at A-level and won the Governor’s Prize,” says Dr Burton.
Throughout this time, she was applying to the 10 medical schools at London hospitals that were now accepting women. But one by one, she was rejected. “I was attending Westminster Chapel and benefitted from Dr Lloyd Jones’ ministry. I learned a new hymn ‘Give to the winds thy fears’ which was a great encouragement. For a young Christian, feeling that God was guiding and yet having repeated disappointments, it was quite difficult to learn a lesson of faith. Was God saying, ‘wait’? Or was God saying ‘no’ after all?”
Dr Burton got a job working at the Hammersmith Hospital Pathological Laboratories. Now aged 22, she felt she had nothing to lose and decided to try for a science scholarship at the Middlesex Hospital. For the exam, she felt empowered to write an essay on the ‘Advancement of Science’, citing examples from her lab experience. The judges were impressed – Dr Burton won the scholarship, covering all her fees. Not only that, she was also eligible for a state scholarship to cover maintenance. “When God answers prayer, He answers abundantly,” she says.
From that moment, Dr Burton knew medicine was not just a career but a vocation – God had opened the way so that she could use her gifts for Him. She chose to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology, thinking that she might join the mission field in a country where a female gynaecologist was required. After a successful interview at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, Hammersmith, Dr Burton found she was expected to get a post-graduate degree in general surgery.
Dr Burton embraced the opportunities that came her way, including jobs in orthopaedics and plastic surgery. “The orthopaedic training helped improve my diagnostic abilities,” she says. “The training in plastics also proved very useful. Patients are not always very concerned about the inside, but if you leave an unsightly scar they are not very pleased!”
Dr Burton found that she had a natural aptitude for surgery. “I like preciseness of it, and also the challenge of the unexpected. You make a provisional diagnosis, you operate with that in mind, and sometimes you find something quite different. You need a lot of courage, and to make sure you aren’t deflected from the job in hand.”
At this time, Dr Burton began attending All Souls’, Langham Place where John Stott was the Rector and she was eventually confirmed as an Anglican.
While female surgeons were rare at the time, Dr Burton found in general that junior jobs went by merit. When it came to the consultant level, it was a different matter. “It was felt, particularly by male appointment committees, that a woman’s place was in the home. Surgery carries a heavy commitment, you were doing alternate nights on, weekends on. When the phone went, you downed everything. And if you had children that would have been really difficult.”
Dr Burton was eventually appointed as a consultant at Harold Wood Hospital in Romford. While working there, she was invited to Iraq to help set up a medical school in Basra. The visit gave Dr Burton fascinating insights into the lives of the Marsh Arabs, whose way of life revolves around the river. A particular highlight was connecting with the local Christian community. She later returned, this time to northern Iraq, to deliver a lecture tour. During these trips, she enjoyed visiting sites of biblical interest, such as the site of Ancient Babylon, Nineveh (Mosul), and the area believed to be the Garden of Eden.
Through this connection with Iraq, Dr Burton found God was using her in new ways. On one occasion she received a phone call from a Christian Iraqi lady who had arrived at Heathrow Airport with her address. The lady had had an operation several years before by an English surgeon visiting Iraq. She now needed a further complex operation and no-one in Iraq was willing to help.
“I believed that day that God had given me a special power,” says Dr Burton. “A Jordanian lady was working with me. She commented, ‘English people say that a gardener has green fingers. What do you say about surgeons?’ She realised that I was operating with a skill not my own. I think that this is what a miraculous healing so often is – a surgeon has been given a special ability by God.”
After a long career, during which she saw many advancements, such as the development of keyhole surgery, Dr Burton retired in 1995. Retirement gave her fresh opportunities to pursue her love of travel and she enjoyed cruises around the Mediterranean and repeat visits to the Middle East. Back in the UK, she volunteered as a guide at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London and in the library at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity.
In 2017 she moved to Finborough Court Housing where she enjoys fellowship with other retired Christians. “When I was visiting those poor pensioners all those years ago with my grandmother I little thought that many years later I would be a beneficiary myself!”
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