May 3, 2023

Vanderbilt mourns loss of former Gastroenterology director Burk

Raymond Burk Jr., MD, former director of the Vanderbilt’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, died May 1 in Nashville. He was 80.

Raymond Burk Jr., MD

by Bill Snyder

Raymond Burk Jr., MD, former director of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, died May 1 in Nashville. He was 80.

Dr. Burk’s recruitment of “master clinicians, passionate educators and world-class investigators” in gastroenterology, nutrition and hepatology (diseases of the liver, pancreas and gall bladder) raised the division’s prominence, said long-time colleague and current division director Richard Peek Jr., MD, who holds the Mina Cobb Wallace Chair in Immunology.

“Ray Burk was likely best known for his integrity, humility, compassion, sage insight, and vision,” Peek said. “He advocated tirelessly for everyone in his division and helped train scores of fellows who have become leaders in every facet of clinical and academic gastroenterology and hepatology.”

“He was a superb physician-scientist, mentor to many, and always a gentleman,” said David Raiford, MD, professor of Medicine and Chief of the Clinical Staff. “He unfailingly modeled integrity, intellectual rigor, and kindness, having an unsurpassed interest in helping others excel.”

A graduate of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Dr. Burk served on the faculties of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, Louisiana State University, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

He was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1987 to lead the GI Division, a position he held until 1998.

Dr. Burk also served as director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Clinical Nutrition Research Unit and was founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Human Nutrition. In partnership with the Department of Surgery, he played a key role in establishing the liver transplant program at VUMC in 1991.

A brilliant researcher, Dr. Burk was internationally renowned in the field of selenium biology and pathobiology. Selenium is a trace mineral that is an essential component of enzymes and proteins involved in numerous physiological functions.

“He engrafted investigators in other regions of the world, especially China, into collaborative programs that could effectively translate his novel findings in the laboratory to human populations suffering from selenium deficiency,” Peek said.

“Ray was a remarkable mentor whose passion for science was contagious,” recalled Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine and director of the Medical Scientist Training Program, who shared lab space with Dr. Burk soon after he joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2005.

“His ability to engage others in his research was genuinely exceptional, and his generosity with his time and resources was a testament to his character,” Williams said. “His mentorship helped me grow professionally and personally, and I will always be grateful for his impact on my career.”

“I won the lottery when it came to having an enduring mentor in academic medicine,” said Ray DuBois, MD, PhD, director of the Hollings Cancer Center and associate provost for Cancer Programs at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

DuBois, former director of the GI Division at VUMC and the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, was mentored by Dr. Burk as a graduate student at UT Southwestern, as a medical student at UT-San Antonio, and later as a faculty member at Vanderbilt.

“He supported me whenever I needed him, and was tirelessly dedicated, generous and kind,” he said. “Ray touched so many lives  —  patients, colleagues, trainees, family and friends — changing them for the better. His passing is a great loss to us all.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.