Allan Burns

Allan Burns (1781–1813) was a Scottish anatomist and surgeon.

As an anatomist Burns provided insight into many aspects of the structure and function of the heart in health and disease

In 1809, Burns published the first monograph on heart disease in the English language; Observations on some of the most frequent and important diseases of the heart. In this he describes an approach to sudden death which preceded the development of modem cardiopulmonary resuscitation by 150 years.

The book includes twelve chapters subjects with several important original observations on cardiac enlargement, chronic inflammation of the heart, coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, anomalies and acquired disorders of the great vessels, and congenital heart disease.

  • Born 18 September 1781
  • 1795 – Commenced medical studies (aged 14) under his brother Dr John Burns (lecturer on anatomy and surgery in Glasgow)
  • 1797 – demonstrator in charge of the dissecting rooms at the College Street Medical School in Glasgow
  • 1804 – Invited by Empress Catherine of Russia, to assist in setting up a new hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • 1805 – Returned to Glasgow when his brother John was debarred for association with grave robbing (a temporary hiatus for John, who became Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow in 1815…)
  • Died 22 June 1813 at the age of 31 from peritonitis secondary to recurrent gastrointestinal ailments complicated by abscess formation and fatal sepsis, described vividly by his colleague Granville Sharp Pattison who carried out the immediate postmortem examination

Medical Eponyms

Burns ligament (1802) (superior horn of falciform margin of saphenous opening) – note many sources including Pattison claim Allan as the author of the term ‘falciform process’, however Allan writes in 1806 that it was in fact his brother John to whom this honour lies (1806: 269)

Space of Burns (suprasternal space) located just superior to the suprasternal notch, between the two layers of the investing layer of deep cervical fascias

Burns Anatomical Collection (The Allan Burns Mummies). Initially bequeathed to Pattison and sold in 1820 to the University of Maryland for $7,800. Of the 1000 specimens 60 survived to restoration by Ronald Wade in 1974 and 11 remain intact and on display.

Key Medical Attributions
Cardiac resuscitation

Burns was the first to describe cardiac resuscitation in the context of the treatment of patients with cardiac arrest (syncope anginosa):

…the cessation of vital action is very complete, and continues long, we ought to inflate the lungs, and pass electric shocks through the chest; the practitioner ought never, if the death has been sudden, and the person not very advanced in life, to despair of success, till he has unequivocal signs of real death

Burns 1809: 147-148

Bums advised that to ‘restore animation’, resuscitative efforts should begin:

as soon as you can reach the place where the patient is laid; and here, as in every case of asphyxia, you will probably be obligated to persist in the use of the necessary means, for a considerable length of time, before you can be certain of either succeeding or failing

Burns 1809: 190
Anatomical dissection and educational preservation

Burns was a skilled anatomist, the first to describe several anatomical structures most notably the Burns ligament (the falciform margin of the saphenous opening of the thigh). He developed innovative methods of specimen preservation (mummification), involving a salt and sugar cure process and introduced new techniques to preserve and highlight blood vessels

Preserved head specimen with intricate details of the external carotid artery and its branches (dyed red); Allan Burns Collection

Pattison on the Burns’ discovery and description of the Burns ligament

Mr. Burns, during the summer of 1802, whilst dissecting the part concerned in the operation for crural hernia, discovered a process of the fascia lata , which had never before been described by anatomists, and in attending to the pathology of the disease, in relation to this process, which he named falciform, he found that it had a very great effect upon the strangulation in certain cases of incarceration.

Pattison 1824

  • Accused of plagiarism by Astley Paston Cooper in 1806, and responded in 1807 Jan; 17(95): 23–25, his letters to the Editor were signed as ‘Allen Burns’ rather than Allan Burns
  • Burns never obtained a surgical degree or formal medical qualification. This was quite common at the time as certificate of attendance to required courses could be sufficient to get credentials needed for surgical practice.

Major Publications



the person behind the name

BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.