April 3, 2012

Medical Center mourns loss of Lonnie Burnett, M.D., longtime chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology

by Nancy Humphrey

Lonnie S. Burnett, M.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Emeritus and former chair of the department, died early this morning following a brief illness. He was 84.

After distinguishing himself as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, Burnett was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1976 as chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, where he served in that role for 19 years. He is recognized for his contributions in gynecological oncology.

In 1995, he was named the Frances and John C. Burch Professor at VUMC. Under Burnett's leadership, the department increased in size and national reputation. More than 100 residents completed their residency training during his tenure.

“Dr. Burnett’s contributions to medicine and to Vanderbilt were enormous. As a department chair, clinician and mentor for colleagues, residents and medical students, he was a guiding force,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “I was among his students, with my very first foray into the operating room occurring under his guidance. Like many, I owe him my gratitude and will greatly miss his presence.”

Burnett has served as president of the Nashville Obstetrics and Gynecology Society and chair of the Tennessee Section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He was president and later chairman of the board of directors of the Nashville Academy of Medicine, and served on the leadership committee of Vanderbilt's “Shape the Future” Campaign.

In recognition of his support of and devotion to medical student scholarship, Burnett was elected president of the Canby Robinson Society in 2006. In 1993 the Vanderbilt Obstetrical Gynecological Alumni Association (“The Stork Club”) was renamed the Lonnie S. Burnett Society.

Burnett contributed to his department not only as chair but also as a role model for students and faculty. In addition to his work in the field, he has served as a member of the admissions committee and as a person active in raising scholarship funds.

Burnett is credited with both expanding his department and breaking through barriers that existed between Vanderbilt and the Nashville community.

“Lonnie was instrumental in bringing the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to national recognition during his tenure as chair,” said Howard Jones III, M.D., Betty and Lonnie S. Burnett professor and chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Vanderbilt.

“He taught all of us the importance of a good collegial relationship with physicians in the community. He was a strong advocate for obstetrics and gynecology, and for all of Vanderbilt as well,” Jones said. “He really helped give the community a real feeling of belonging and of being important to Vanderbilt.”

Jones said he first met Burnett as a child at his home in Baltimore. His parents, Howard Jones Jr., M.D., and Georgeanna Jones, M.D., were on the faculty at Johns Hopkins and hosted an annual New Year’s Day brunch for fellow faculty members at the Jones’ home. Years later, in 1980, Burnett recruited Jones III to the Vanderbilt faculty from the University of California, San Francisco.

“Vanderbilt was kind of isolated from the town before Lonnie got here. Very few people came over to Vanderbilt who worked out in town and there was just not a good relationship,” said Angus Crook, M.D., a Nashville doctor who met Burnett while interning at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit in 1953-54, in a 2005 interview with the VUMC Reporter.

“It's called the 'town and gown relationship,' with the town being the private practitioners and the gown being the academic people. Lonnie, amazingly enough, tied the 'town' and 'gown' together. He really reached out to the town and tried to make everybody into a common group.”

In 1998, Burnett was named one of 15 new members of the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars. New scholars are nominated by the various academic divisions that have programs for postdoctoral fellows. They are elected by a committee whose members are equally distributed among the academic divisions.

Burnett is survived by his wife, Betty, and children, Anne and Michael Julian.

A Memorial Service will be held at St George’s Episcopal Church, 4715 Harding Pike, Tuesday, April 10. Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to noon, and the service will begin at noon.