Biographical notes on Sir Henry Burdett, 1847-1920


A man of many parts with boundless energy, Burdett began his working life in a bank, but at the early age of twenty-one he was appointed hospital superinten­dent to the Queen's Hospital, Birmingham. He came to be well known to Joseph Chamberlain (Mayor of Birmingham 1873-5) who was notable for combining effective social reform with sound business principles.Sir Henry BurdettHaving virtually doubled the income of Queen's Hospital in six years, he became house governor to the Seamen's Hospital, Greenwich, where he again revitalised the hospital, attracted new funds and trained a number of young but rising administrators. Though lacking the time to take finals, he entered himself as a medical student at Guy's and so impressed those he met that he was appointed secretary to the Shares and Loan Department of the London Stock Exchange in 1881, leaving Greenwich.

His book, Prince, Princess and People, a sketch of social progress exemplified by the work of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) attracted influential attention. An active participant in the Social Science Association, his organisa­tion of the first hospital conference led to the establishment of the Hospitals Association in 1884. He founded, in conjunction with the Hospitals Associ­ation, a weekly journal, The Hospital, which became his personal platform. He was one of the earliest workers in the cause of Hospital Sunday, was the author of a four volume classic Hospitals and Asylums of the World (1893), and launched Burdett's Hospitals and Charities - the Year Book of Philanthropy. This became the leading annual reference book on hospitals and it appeared until the 1990s as the Health Services Year Book.

As his reputation and influence grew, he took the precaution of taking a shorthand writer to meetings with him, for his blunt comments were sometimes misquoted. A governor of many hospitals, his long and wide ranging experience of hospital administration and finance made him a formidable adversary. He was interested in the development of the nursing profession, writing a book to help girls wishing to enter nursing, and establishing the Royal National Pension Fund for Nurses. He, and his journal, supported the establishment view of his day that a register for nurses would be disadvantageous, siding with Miss Nightingale and Miss Liickes against Mrs Bedford Fenwick. His obituary in The Lancet describes him as a kindly hospitable man whose mind moved on large lines towards large objectives, but who could never subdue the instinct for oratorial effect, the dramatic pause and gesture. His writings and criticisms were robust, and those who did not measure up to his high standards would find a caustic comment in The Hospital. He therefore made enemies as well as friends. Active in visiting hospitals and always sympathetic to appeals for advice, he had no patience with inefficiency. While he believed that more men of accomplishment were needed on hospital boards, those devoting themselves to the noble cause of the hospitals had to give their all, as he did himself. For his services he received first the KCB and later the KCVO.

Burdett recognised that hospitals must demonstrate soundness and economy of management if they were to survive, but he viewed them with something approaching reverence. `The concept of the voluntary hospitals of this country constitutes one of the noblest monuments of our Christian civilisation. We believe and hope that the day is far distant when any serious attempt will be made to substitute State hospitals for the noble medical charities scattered throughout England, charities which are at one and the same time the wonder of foreigners and the just glory and pride of the British nation.'

Sources:                 Burdett H C. Lancet, 1897, ii, pp 1215-6.

Sir Henry Burdett. The Hospital, 1920, ii, pp 129-147.