Burns, Francis Harding

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MB BS (Hons) 1948 FRCP (Lond) FRACP FAChAM

Francis (Harding) Burns established the first unit for Alcoholism at both Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney in 1975 and Concord Hospital in 1985. His early studies of emergency patients formed the basis for further research into indicators of problem drinking.

After graduation, Harding went to Royal Prince Alfred as a Junior Resident Medical Officer and was on the Resident Staff until late 1953. He started postgraduate training in medicine and continued at Hammersmith Hospital in England from 1954 to 1955. In 1957, he was appointed to the honorary staff of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and started a consultancy practice in Carillon Avenue. He worked in general medicine and in the Diabetic Centre where he was particularly interested in oral hypoglycaemic agents. At that time he was also President of the New South Wales Summer Camp for Diabetic Children. He says:

The camps were founded by dieticians at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in the 1950s. The committee raised the money themselves so that the burden wasn’t on the parents. Their aim was to give children with diabetes an opportunity to attend a holiday camp and engage in outdoor activities without having to be supervised by their parents. Instead their activities, such as swimming, were supervised by either a doctor or nurse with knowledge of diabetes and good nutrition. Their food was specially prepared by dieticians to support their needs. We wanted to teach the children how to be self-reliant and to know how to look after their special needs. The camps were a respite for the parents too.

In 1974 Harding was appointed to the Visiting Staff of Concord Hospital in general medicine. Even in these early days, his clinical research interests became drug and alcohol related. In 1975, as general medicine in hospitals began to change into special medical units, Harding was nominated to head the newly formed Alcohol Unit at Royal Prince Alfred, which later became the Drug and Alcohol Unit. He says of this time that Professor Ruthven Blackburn had ‘god-fathered’ him into the role because of the interest he had been showing in alcohol related problems in medicine and elsewhere.

These foundation years allowed him to engage in studies of patients at the hospital and to determine patterns and indicators of alcohol dependence. This was important, as it enabled him to persuade and interest other doctors and units who felt that “an alcohol unit would attract undesirables into the hospital”. What his early research showed, however, was that one in six patients were found to have an alcohol related reason for admission and that 33 per cent of patients had concomitant alcohol problems regardless of their reason for admission.[1]

From 1980 to 1998, Harding was President of the New South Wales Alcohol and Drug Foundation which runs residential programs for men and women with drug and alcohol problems, and their children. Since 1983, he has been a member of the World Health Organization Collaborative Project on the Identification and Treatment of Persons with Harmful Alcohol Consumption. This project developed and published the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) which is now acknowledged as the most widely used screening instrument for alcohol problems in all clinical settings.

In 1985, he joined the Board of International Council on Alcohol and Addiction, Lausanne becoming Honorary Vice President from 1996 to 2003. Also at that time, he became a Consultant Physician in the Drug and Alcohol department at Royal Prince Alfred and took up an appointment as Visiting Physician at Concord Hospital, establishing the drug and alcohol services there. He remained in that capacity until 1995.

Since 1995 Harding has been a Consultant Physician to the NSW Doctors Health Advisory Service and an Honorary Consultant (Emeritus) in the Drug and Alcohol Department, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Drug Health Services, Concord Hospital since 1997.

He has been a Foundation Member of the Chapter of Addiction Medicine, Royal Australasian College of Physicians since its establishment in 2003. In 1996 he received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to medicine.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Burns, Francis Harding. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.