Dr. Michael (Mick) Brunskill Burt, a world-class and award-winning parasitologist who taught and researched at the University of New Brunswick for 50 years, died in March after a battle with liver cancer. He was 76.
Burt was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Jan. 19, 1938 and moved to Scotland with his family eight years later before coming to UNB in 1964.
Described by colleagues and students as a great communicator who could make any topic interesting, he taught thousands of undergraduate students and supervised more than 60 graduate students over his time at UNB, and though he retired in 1995 he actively continued his research at UNB as Professor Emeritus and an Honorary Research Professor. In fact, all researchers are given identification numbers. Today, they’re up to seven digits long. Burt’s was three digits.
Among his more than 100 scientific journals include his studies on the “sealworm,” which he was asked to look into by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which helped save the cod industry from an economic collapse.
Among his PhD students was eventual-colleague Dr. Mike Duffy, who first took Burt’s introduction class during his undergraduate degree, which led to a career in parasitics.
“There’s so much you can talk about this guy. I hadn’t really found my way [when I came to UNB] but I took my first class with Mick and wow, this man changed my life,” Duffy said, who gave a eulogy at Burt’s funeral last month. “How do you get up and speak about a man who was one of the most effective communicators I’ve ever met?”
Burt had applied for and received research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and was continuously funded for his 50 years – in the 15 years after his retirement, Burt was awarded nearly $1.5 million from various NSERC funding programs.
“You think about most profs get their job in their early 30s and typically retire at 65. So they do good to basically crank out a 35-year research career,” Duffy explained. “Mick had NSERC funding for fifty years. These are competitive applications. Historically you had to apply every three or five years and then a panel of experts would look at your work and determine whether or not you were worthy to invest funding in. Some people will apply and get funding for five years and maybe they’re out of the system for two years and re-apply and get back in. But Mick never missed a year in 50 years. Honestly, that must be a record with NSERC.”
Before his death, both NSERC and UNB were preparing to recognize him for his achievements at a special celebration event.
As part of being an effective communicator, Dr. David Crowe – Burt’s colleague and former graduate student – described Burt as an “entertainer.”
“I think where he gained a lot of notoriety was because of his lectures,” Crowe said. “You’d almost stop taking notes and just sit there and listen. It was as if he’s telling you a story. You’d almost lose track of the fact that ‘Hey, I should be taking notes’ but this is the sort of lecturer he was. You’d get lost in the story he was giving.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that myself and probably 35 or 40 parasitologists scattered around the world owe our careers to Mick. Certainly we never would have gotten to where we were without him. He was a tremendous influence.”
When he wasn’t lecturing Burt was always devoted to his work. Aside from sticking around campus for almost 20 years after his retirement, Duffy remembers Burt going to amazing lengths in the name of research.
Duffy was researching certain parasites which live in the brains of deer. To study the parasites, Duffy worked with local agencies to collect deer around the province, but early on didn’t know exactly how to get a deer.
“I arrived to work one day and there were a set of keys and a note sitting on my desk,” Duffy recalled. “They were Mick’s car keys and the note said ‘Mike, there’s a deer for you in the back of my van.’
“Mick knew I needed deer and saw a dead deer lying on the side of the road when he was driving into work. So the obvious solution for Mick was to drag the deer into the back of the van. I think that would go a long way to describe Mick Burt. He would absolutely do anything to make things happen or get things off the ground. He was a real visionary.”
Burt’s quirkiness extended far beyond the walls of UNB. His daughter Diane took classes with him and said even at home he was just as witty with a dry sense of humour.
“It was funny to watch him because he wouldn’t really make a joke. He’d just make a comment that he knew was funny and he’d look around to see if people got it,” she said. “He did that everywhere.”
Indeed. Even in his final weeks he was still rolling out the punch lines.
Diane and his other daughter Sheila took him out for lunch one day and he was up to his old tricks with the waitress.
“He ordered a beer and a sandwich and told the waitress he could only drink half of a beer,” Diane recalled. “So he only did eat half the sandwich and drink half the beer and the waitress came and asked if he wanted the sandwich packed up to go.
“And he said ‘No, not really but I would like to pack up the beer to go.’ And he was just joking but she looked at him seriously and said, ‘I’ll go get a cup.’ ”
Diane also remembers her father going to pay with a debit or credit card and pretending to forget the pin number. When the cashiers would insist that he had to have the pin number, Burt jokingly replied, “Well how would I know the pin number? I just found this card outside.”
Burt’s fascination for marine life also extended beyond the research labs. He was Associate Director of the Huntsman Marine Science Centre and Director of Academic Programs from 1995 to 2001.
He was also an avid fly fisherman in his spare time and was a great squash, soccer and field hockey player. He was a self-taught gourmet chef and could play the piano by ear.
“I’ve heard a number of unsolicited stories about how these younger men in fantastic shape would ultimately succumb to Mick in a squash match,” Duffy said. “He would typically host people for five- or six-course meals and just whip up the most amazing meals.
“He certainly had an affinity for seafood and made a mean leg of lamb. His steaks were always a real specialty and his statement was always ‘How would you like it? Rare or ruined?’ Of course he ate his blue.”
Burt’s research is being continued by his students with whom he worked with right up until January.
Burt is survived by his sister, Susan Jamieson; children – Carolyn Ramsay (Bert Ramsay), Diane Burt (Cenk Acar), Sheila Burt (Gordon Thomas), and David Burt (Erin Whitmore) and their mother Joan Burt; children – Katherine Burt and Hilary Burt and their mother Barbara MacKinnon; grandchildren – Jessica Ramsay, Chris Bielecki, Stefan Bielecki, Emily Bielecka and Alec Dobbelsteyn; and nieces and nephews and their families – Peter Burt, Fiona Jamieson, David Jamieson, Graeme Jamieson and Catriona Jamieson.