Sir Harry Burns awarded Honorary Fellowship from Royal College

Mr Mike McKirdy, President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow; Sir Harry Burns; Professor Hany Eteiba, President-Elect of the College, who read the citation at the Honorary Fellowship ceremony. The picture was taken in the Lower Library of the College, which is based on St Vincent Street, Glasgow.

Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer and leading light in global public health, Professor Sir Harry Burns, has been made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

The award was made in recognition of his outstanding contribution to social justice and health at an international conference on health inequalities held at the Royal College on Thursday 16 November.

A Professor of Practice and Special Advisor at the University of Strathclyde, Sir Harry is renowned for addressing the link between poverty and ill health. He started his career in general surgery at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, before becoming Medical Director, and between 2005 and 2014, was Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

At the event – the President’s Conference on Inequalities in Healthcare – Sir Harry gave a keynote lecture on the importance of the early years as the basis of health and wellbeing in adulthood.

Implement change

The conference was inspired by College President Mike McKirdy’s own experiences as a surgeon encountering health inequalities in his native Glasgow. Mr McKirdy said: “As healthcare professionals, we must be mindful of the intrinsic role social inequalities play in the outcomes of our patients. However, we should also recognise the power we hold to implement change for the betterment of health in our communities.

“Sir Harry is a shining example of how healthcare professionals can be catalysts for positive change. He has made an outstanding contribution to global public health and his work in illuminating – and challenging – health inequalities will have a lasting impact, both here in Scotland, throughout the UK, and internationally. It is fitting that we should confer this Honorary Fellowship on him today.”

Born in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, Sir Harry studied medicine at the University of Glasgow. He initially pursued a career in general surgery, becoming consultant surgeon at the city’s Royal Infirmary and later, Medical Director.

Working in the east end of Glasgow gave him an insight into the complex relationships between social deprivation and illness, and in 1990, he took a Master’s degree in public health. It was an area that has since become a central theme of his professional life, with a focus on wellbeing and addressing the link between poverty and ill health.

He went on to become Director of Public Health for Greater Glasgow Health Board in 1993, and took up the post of Chief Medical Officer for Scotland in September 2005.

Among his many contributions as CMO was his report on the importance of the early years as the basis for health and wellbeing in adulthood. 

After receiving his award, Sir Harry said: “As a very junior doctor, I remember coming here to the College to sit my exams – and who would have thought that all these years later I’d be getting an Honorary Fellowship!

“I feel very at home in the College, having been back many times as an examiner for the junior doctors. It’s a real pleasure to be given this award, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Leading figure

As a leading figure in health policy, Sir Harry received the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland's Meritorious Endeavours in Environmental and Public Health Award in 2008. He was later knighted in the 2011 Birthday Honours in recognition of outstanding achievement and service to society.

He was joined at the President’s Conference, entitled ‘Health Inequalities – what do we know and what can we do?’ by other leaders in health and social policy to discuss the complexities of health inequalities and practical interventions to address them.

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow is the UK’s only multidisciplinary Royal College and has around 16,000 Members and Fellows from almost 100 countries around the world.