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Burns, Dr. H. A. (1883–1949)

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Dr. H. A. Burns

Dr. H. A. Burns, ca. 1930s. From A Brief History of Ah-Gwah-Ching, Cass County Museum archives, Walker.

Dr. Herbert Arthur (H. A.) Burns was named superintendent of the Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives (Ah-Gwah-Ching) in 1928. Over the next fourteen years, he brought crucial changes to the institution that improved patient care, housing, therapy, and recreation.

Burns received his medical degree in 1908 from the University of Minnesota and spent some of the early years of his practice in Minneapolis. During World War I, he served as a medical officer; after his discharge he worked for the newly organized Veterans Administration Medical Division. The Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives hired him to serve as assistant superintendent in 1928. He was promoted to superintendent shortly afterwards, after the death of Dr. P. M. Hall.

Burns was a nationally recognized authority on tuberculosis. After graduating from medical school, he served as an epidemiologist for the state board of health from 1912 to 1920—except for the time he served in the military during World War I. From 1920 to 1928 he worked with tuberculosis patients at the Veterans Hospital.

Burns was the first person in Minnesota, and possibly in the United States, to employ full-time epidemiologists on a sanatorium staff (epidemiologists determine the origin, nature, and spread of epidemics). He hired Dr. F. M. Feldman in September of 1931. Early in his tenure, Burns demonstrated an interest in the study of Indigenous medicine and the transmission of tuberculosis within Indigenous communities.

While working at the sanatorium, Burns theorized that tuberculosis bacteria could be transmitted through books. With this in mind, he assigned staff to experiment with washing the pages of books and culturing the results. Any books that patients touched were considered contaminated. When books were returned to the library, staff disinfected them. They also washed (and sometimes even ironed) the money that was taken into the patients’ store.

Soon after his arrival, Burns introduced bird banding to provide recreation for patients. The sanatorium secured a permit in June 1928 that allowed them to capture and band migratory birds for scientific study. The banding continued from early spring until fall. During the winter, interested patients spent hours studying and planning for the next spring. From 1928 to 1932, patients and staff banded and released over 3,600 birds—more than forty species in all—from the sanatorium.

Hall Memorial Pavilion, named in honor of Dr. P. M. Hall, was completed in 1928 and originally housed child patients. Burns, who believed that bringing children into an institution caused them more harm than good, oversaw the conversion of the building into a facility for the care and treatment of contagious adults in 1933.

When a sanatorium for Native people across the bay at Onigum burned in January 1935, twenty of its patients were transported across the ice of Leech Lake and housed in temporary quarters. Construction of an “Indian building” of the sanatorium was completed, and patients moved in quickly. The structure, also known as the E or Eagle building, opened on August 1, 1935, with a capacity of 117 beds.

In 1934, Burns hired Martha Emig to oversee an occupational therapy program. Emig’s sister, Magdelena, joined her in 1938. Burns advocated for a small wing to be added to the north of the E building for special craft and school work.

Many patients or patients’ relatives gifted Burns with pieces of beadwork and birchbark items they had made as part of their therapy. Burns, in turn, appreciated their quality and preserved them throughout his tenure. The Burns family eventually donated the collection to the Cass County Historical Society in Walker, where it was displayed in a museum.

Burns resigned in 1942 but continued to pursue his passion for improving the treatment of mentally ill patients with tuberculosis, this time as a medical director at Anoka State Hospital. He died in July 1949. Shortly afterwards, the Burns Memorial building was dedicated on the grounds of Anoka State Hospital.

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Bilben, Cliff. Oral history interview. Cass County Museum archives, Walker, Minnesota.

Burns, H. A. “Annual Report of the Sanatorium for Consumptives for the Period Ending June 30, 1933.”

——— . “Biannual Report of the Sanatorium for Consumptives for the Period Ended June 30, 1936.”

——— . “Indian Medicine.” Moccasin 4, no. 5, 5–7, August 1941.

——— . “The Program of the Minnesota State Sanatorium.” Journal-Lancet, February 15, 1933.

——— . “Regarding an Investigation Concerning the Adequacy of the Medical Care for the Tuberculous Patients at The Ah Gwah Ching State Sanatorium; and Regarding the Charges Bearing Upon the Competency and Temperament of the Superintendent.” Manuscript.

Geving, Renee, and Cecelia McKeig (Cass County Historical Society). Onigum & the Leech Lake Agency. Bang Printing: Brainerd, 2016.

Keener, Karen. “Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives.” 100 Years of Caring. [MN]: Cass County Historical Society, 2007.

Oliver, Skip. A Brief History of Ah-Gwah-Ching, 1982. Cass County Museum archives, Walker, Minnesota.

“Sanatorium Patients Find Bird Banding Interesting Pastime; Returns on Banded Birds Show Time, Distance, Of Flights.” Walker Pilot, May 27, 1932.

Related Images

Dr. H. A. Burns
Dr. H. A. Burns
Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives
Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives
Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives
Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives

Turning Point

Recognizing the growing importance of the field of epidemiology, Dr. H. A. Burns hires Dr. F. M. Feldman in 1931 as the first full-time epidemiologist at a sanatorium.



Herbert A. Burns is born in Wisconsin on January 12.


Burns graduates from the University of Minnesota.


Burns serves as epidemiologist for the Minnesota Board of Health.


Burns serves as a medical officer during World War I.


Burns works with tuberculosis patients at the Veterans Hospital in Minneapolis.


Burns is hired as assistant superintendent at Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives (known as Ah-Gwah-Ching).


P. M. Hall dies; Burns replaces him as the sanatorium’s superintendent.


In June, Burns introduces bird banding as a recreational activity for sanatorium employees and patients.


In September, Burns hires Dr. F. M. Feldman as a full-time epidemiologist for the sanatorium.


Burns discontinues the practice of housing children in the Hall Memorial Pavilion.


Burns hires an occupational therapist for the sanatorium.


Workers complete construction of a separate building for Indigenous patients on the grounds of the sanatorium.


Burns hires a second occupational therapist to work at the sanatorium.


Burns resigns and becomes a medical director at Anoka State Hospital.


Burns dies on July 8.