Burnett, Waldo Irving
- John P. Wourms
Burnett, Waldo Irving (12 July 1828–01 July 1854), zoologist and physician, was born in Southborough, Massachusetts, the son of Joel Burnett, a physician, and Sarah (maiden name unknown). His early education, obtained at local schools, seems to have been eclectic, and he neither sought nor received a college degree. From his father, who was a skilled physician and a dedicated botanist and entomologist, he acquired an interest and received training in medicine and zoology. In his early boyhood, he embarked on the study of insects and other animals with an intensity that would characterize his life. He was precocious, something of a prodigy, and an autodidact. He developed such ability in mathematics that his teachers were no longer capable of giving him instruction. Almost without assistance he mastered French, Spanish, and German. By the age of sixteen he had dedicated himself to the study of medicine; his decision was stimulated by involvement in his father’s professional activities. Equally enthralled by entomology, he collected, studied, and classified insects, demonstrating critical powers of inquiry and observation. A change in the family’s finances following his father’s death during Burnett’s sixteenth year made it necessary for him to begin teaching school as he embarked on the study of medicine. He received his medical education under the direction of Dr. Joseph Sargent of Worcester, Massachusetts, at the Tremont Medical School in Boston and Massachusetts General Hospital and became a skilled microscopist and essayist. For two consecutive years (1847 and 1848) he was awarded the prize for the best essay offered by the Boylston Medical Society. In the first of his prize essays, titled “Cancer,” he addressed the subject in terms of microscopic tissue structure, a pioneering insight for the time. His second essay, “The Sexual System,” was one of the earliest American contributions to the fields of reproductive biology and embryology. Burnett was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine in 1849 at the age of twenty-one. Shortly thereafter, he embarked for Europe, where he spent four months, mostly in Paris, engaged in microscopic observations and the study of natural history. While in Paris, he discovered that he had tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. Returning to the United States, he became a peripatetic scholar for reasons of health. Based in Boston, he passed the winters in South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida. In spite of his constant travels, he was incessantly occupied with microscopic observations and accomplished an almost incredible amount of intellectual labor....