Robert Benjamin Burton
Captain, United States Army
a press report: June 2000
Medical scholar and World War II hero Dr. Robert Benjamin Burton, a prominent Brighton internist who pioneered the idea of health maintenance organizations, died Wednesday after a two-year struggle with colon cancer. He was 81.
In 1962, Dr. Burton became medical director for the 6-year-old Sidney Hillman Health Center, supported by contributions from members of what was then known as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The health center was one of the first independent physicians' associations in the nation.
He helped craft a health plan there that allowed physicians to see patients in their own offices, instead of at a central clinic.
"In a sense, it was the prototype of all HMOs," said Gregory Burton of Ann Arbor, Mich., Dr. Burton's son. "Dad was a central player in this managed care evolution, or revolution."
During the 1970s, Dr. Burton lead a federal research effort that assessed the feasibility of using the Rochester plan as the template for HMO-style care nationwide. His research led to years of consultancy on the subject and evolved into Preferred Care, a Rochester HMO that he served as its first medical director.
From 1956 until 1996, Dr. Burton was a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Rochester. He was a nationally recognized expert in diseases of the adrenal cortex, the microscopic, hormone-producing zones that influence blood pressure, sex characteristics, metabolism and immune function.
His long medical career also included world-class research into steroid hormones -- he co-discovered that cortisone is a product of the human adrenal gland.
He was lauded by patients in his private practice for his compassion, intelligence and listening skills.
"He had a very sharp wit but was also very laid back," said Gregory Burton. "People around him found him charming and open."
"And reserved and understated at the same time," added his daughter, Melissa Burton of Rochester.
Dr. Burton, a longtime Brighton resident, was born on December 17, 1918, and in 1936 was valedictorian of his class at Benjamin Franklin High School. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1940 from the University of Rochester, he graduated first in his class at UR's School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1943.
Barely a year later, Dr. Burton was in Europe, a U.S. Army first lieutenant, serving as a medical officer in General George Patton's Third Army. He received a Bronze Star for valor under fire in France in December 1944 and a Silver Star a month later for heroism while attending to wounded troops under intense fire near Nothum, Luxembourg.
He also received a Purple Heart and the Croix de Guerre.
At the end of April 1945, Dr. Burton, by then a captain, was the first Allied medical officer on the scene as the 328th Infantry Regiment liberated Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp in Austria.
Two great tragedies influenced Dr. Burton's life, said his son: the 1930 death of his father at age 39 -- which propelled the 11-year-old Dr. Burton to be the man of the house and the lifelong role model for two younger siblings. And the unexpected death in 1972 of his wife, Sheila Stillman Burton, at age 44.
Dr. Burton, who never remarried, "had to be not only Pop but also Mom to two small kids," said his younger brother, retired federal energy analyst Ellison S. Burton of Alexandria, Va.
Ellison Burton remembered his brother as a voracious reader with a special interest in Albert Einstein. He favored discussions about current events, enjoyed recreational golf and jogged avidly for nearly 40 years.
Dr. Burton is also survived by a sister, Shirley Bloom of Charlottesville, Va.; a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Jacqueline and Chester Stricker of Rochester; and six nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Temple Sinai, 363 Penfield Road., Brighton. Interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery.
Contributions in his memory may be made to:
the University of Rochester Medical Center, the Robert B. Burton M.D. Memorial
Scholarship Fund, 300 E. River Road, P.O. Box 278996, Rochester, N.Y. 14627-8996.
Photo Courtesy of Russell C. Jacobs, August 2006
Posted: 5 August 2000 Updated: 22 February 2003 Updated: 19 August 2006