Committed educator and Young Scientist Exhibition founder


Rev Dr Thomas Patrick Burke:ON A hot morning in July 1963 Fr Tom Burke was among those standing in a yard behind a school in Socorro, New Mexico.

They were watching a young American teenager successfully demonstrating the flight of a home-made rocket.

The project was to be entered in a local science fair - and this gave birth to an idea which became the annual Young Scientist Exhibition in Dublin, held for the first time in January 1965.

Last year, the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) conferred honorary doctorates on Dr Burke and Dr Tony Scott to mark their roles in founding the exhibition.

Prof Brian Norton, president of DIT, said at the ceremony: "It is an honour for DIT to award Drs Burke and Scott with honorary doctorates in recognition of their outstanding achievements in the field of science and science education, but in particular for their vision in founding the Young Scientist Exhibition. Since 1965 it has been the catalyst for thousands of young people to develop an interest in exploring the world we live in through their projects and experiments. To this day it continues to be the single most effective initiative in making science accessible to all."

Born in Dublin in 1923 Fr Burke received his early education in Synge Street CBS. On leaving school he joined the Carmelite Order and in the following year entered UCD to study science. Graduating with an honours degree in 1945, majoring in physics, he immediately began research in the area of atmospheric physics receiving his MSc in 1947 and his PhD in 1949.

Studies for the priesthood now took over. He was ordained in 1951 and in 1952 he gained the Baccalaureate and Licentiate in theology from Miltown Park. In 1953 he obtained his higher diploma in education.

On being professed in the Carmelite Order in 1942 he was given the name Patrick. This was a source of confusion, as within the order he was known as Fr Patrick or Paddy, while family and friends knew him as Tom or Fr Tom.

Assigned to Terenure College in 1953 where he taught physics and mathematics. His attributes were quickly realised and in 1958 he was appointed headmaster and prior, a post he held until 1961.

In 1960 to mark the centenary of the college, the National University of Ireland conferred on him an honorary LLD degree.

In 1962 he joined the staff in the Physics Department of UCD and began a career as a university academic, contributing to teaching and research until he retired in 1988. In the current debate on teaching versus research Fr Tom's sympathies sided with those of Cardinal Newman: education was, for them, the most important function of a university. Research indeed had its place, but it was his belief that if young school leavers were not taught to be scientists, where would future researchers come from?

But his role as a priest was not neglected and one of his interests was in giving retreats, especially to religious. He was profoundly committed to fraternal Carmelite values. Every day he would arrive back to Gort Mhuire for midday prayers although they only lasted for some five minutes.

He founded, and was the first chairman, of the Institute of Public Health Nursing. For this work an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland was conferred on him.

The last time many of his friends met him was at this year's BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. He never missed a single exhibition although in recent years he stopped acting as a judge.

At the opening ceremony last January, despite his weakness, when the judges were asked to stand up, he leapt up with his arms in the air clearly enjoying the moment - a true young scientist.

Born November 4th, 1923; died March 30th