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Psychiatrist who started a quiet revolution in medicine

18 October, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Dr Burke’s portrait on the Black History Month poster

IT’S good to see that one of our most distinguished psychiatrists is being honoured during Black History Month.

But it has been a long road to national recognition for Aggrey Burke, whose portrait appears on a poster produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

It wasn’t all that long ago that he was given the cold shoulder by the medical establishment because he – and a fellow practitioner – dared to expose the hidden practice at medical schools of keeping out black and Asian students because they had the wrong colour of skin.

In short, the schools were breaking the law.

And it was Burke and his colleague Joe Collier who proved it in a groundbreaking paper for the prestigious Medical Education journal.

But it came with a price. For Burke’s exposé was met with quiet hostility that resulted in his role being diminished as a consultant psychiatrist at the leading south London medical school, St George’s.

He continued to lecture and see patients but a professorship that would have been a natural title for a psychiatrist of his standing and reputation never came his way.

But Burke brushed it aside and today, even in retirement, he is much in demand in the profession and is a key member of a small circle of psychi­atrists employed by the medical profession’s watchdog, the General Medical Council, to help decide whether erring doctors are “fit to practice”.

The exposure of a “colour bar” at London medical schools happened in the early 1980s when Burke, a Jamaican, and his friend and fellow St George’s lecturer Collier noticed how few ethnic students were at the schools and at others that they were aware of – and they asked why.

When they looked into it, sifting through the enrolment details of students at other medical schools, and checking their names and photographs, did they begin to see that the low figures were too consistent to be explained away as a kind of accidental statistic.

There was only one explanation, however unpalatable – that they were being racially discriminated against.

The title of their paper, published in 1986, summed up their findings: Racial and sexual discrimination in the selection of students for London medical schools.

They began by checking the names of students taking their final examinations in June 1982, 1983 and 1984 which, generally, identified their ethnicity.

They were classed as European or African, Asian and Arabic, and where there was some kind of doubt they were classed as European.

They also checked the photographs of these intakes wherever possible.

The results of their research of the intakes of 11 schools in London showed a consistent pattern.

Percentages varied – they were as low as 6 per cent at Guy’s and St Thomas’s, with the highest being 12 per cent at St George’s, and the Royal Free, top of the table at 14 per cent.

Inevitably, any analysis of intakes meant they also studied the gender of students – and here they came to a similar level of discrimination.

Collier finally got the professorial stamp of approval although it was after years of both men being marginalised by the medical community they had exposed.

Burke is still an important and seminal voice on suicide and the societal causes of the high rate of schizophrenia among Afro-Caribbean young men, as well as the psychiatric pressures facing black people worldwide. He continues to be invited to speak internation­ally and add his insight to the debate on the black experience in Britain.

It’s due to the work of campaigners like Burke and Collier that London medical schools reformed – and today more than half of students starting their careers are black or Asian.

A quiet revolution which will change the face of medicine in Britain today.


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