Date of Birth: 12th Nov 1943
ALLELOPATHY: the study of how plants protect and defend themselves from other plants, insects, and disease-causing agents
FUNGUS (plural fungi): an organism that resembles a plant and grows on living or dead organic matter. Mushrooms and yeasts are fungi. Some fungi cause diseases in humans and animals.
GLUCOLIPID: a chemical compound with molecules that can be broken down to yield the sugar glucose. Glucolipids are found on the outer surfaces of cells and may provide energy or serve as identifying markers.
NATURAL PRODUCTS: chemical substances that are extracted from plants or animals, which have uses in science, especially in medicine.
THERAPEUTICS: treatment and care to combat disease and alleviate injury
Basil Burke won three scholarships to attend university, including one to McGill University in Canada. However, he chose to attend UWI, Mona, in order to be a support of his mother.
Caribbean Icons in STI Volume 2
Dr Basil Burke has spent most of his professional life in research. He is highly respected for his expertise in and contribution to natural products chemistry, technology and teaching in Jamaica and the United States.
Basil Burke was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica on 12th November, 1943. He attended St. Aloysius Boys’ School and Greenwich Town Primary. While he was at St. George’s College, his father passed away but he excelled, guided by his mother. He was Vice President of the Science Society of St. George’s College and captain of the cricket team. When he entered Form Six, he became the college’s first student teaching assistant, assisting Father Lawrence O’Toole in teaching chemistry.
At The University of the West Indies (UWI) in Mona, Jamaica, Burke excelled academically and was active in campus life. He graduated in chemistry with honours and pursued his doctorate under Professor Wilfred Chan. In 1970, he married Hortense Guthrie, and together they departed for Canada. Burke taught at the University of British Columbia and experimented on P310, a substance believed to help fungi survive and grow in the dark. This information has applications important to agriculture in places with little sunlight.
In 1972, Burke returned to Jamaica where he lectured in the chemistry department at UWI, Mona. Over the next decade, he introduced advanced technology, isolated and analysed new natural products. His findings added to the scientific understanding of Caribbean plants, including various pepper and citrus plants. He became a Senior Fulbright Fellow to Stanford University and was also awarded the Jamaica Centennial Medal.
In 1982, Dr Burke joined Plant Cell Research Institute in California, where he directed and pioneered new research technologies and chemical discoveries with potential uses in medicine and agriculture. Among these were patented natural glucolipids, which repel insects on crops.
His team modified the characteristics of a number of crops, among them high solids tomatoes to make them easier to transport, and high sulphur protein soybeans and canola to make the constituents more nutritious as animal feed. He also spearheaded research leading to discoveries in allelopathy.
In 1991, Dr Burke became President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Plant Research Technologies. Under his seven-year leadership, the company underwent significant improvements servicing the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries. He co-founded Clinimetrics Biomedical, a division of Clinimetrics Research Associates. He later became Vice President of Theranos, a company that develops tools to evaluate patients’ ailments at home and transmit the results to doctors electronically.
Dr Burke retains close ties to the Caribbean, is an active member of the Caribbean diaspora in North America, and most recently, became CEO of UWI Consulting, a spin-off of UWI dedicated to harnessing its intellectual potential to serve the region. He advises the scientists of tomorrow that, “The coin of life has two sides – adversity and achievement – yet its value is not diminished by which side is currently facing up.”