Perry Burgess, LLD (1886-1962) was an American preacher and fundraiser known as a founding member and president of the Leonard Wood Memorial for the Eradication of Leprosy.
Burgess was born in Joplin, Missouri, and became an ordained Methodist minister at the age of seventeen, soon after graduating from high school. He preached to support himself through college, and graduated from Baker University in 1912.
From 1917, he devoted himself to fundraising for various humanitarian Christian causes. His interest in leprosy began in 1925, when he met with Dorothy Paul Wade. Wade was looking to recruit a professional fundraiser on behalf of Leonard Wood, who wished to establish a research foundation for the study of leprosy. Burgess's initial reaction, as he later recounted it in his autobiography, was 'Do people still have that [leprosy]?' He was moved by Wade's account of the suffering of leprosy patients, and soon came to see the fight against leprosy as his calling, describing himself as 'a man fired by the excitement and driven toward a goal'.
With Wade, Burgess began raising money for Leonard Wood's leprosy research project from 1925. After Wood's death in 1927, the project was named for him: the Leonard Wood Memorial for the Eradication of Leprosy was incorporated in 1928, and Burgess became its first director. He became its president in 1930, and held that position until he retired in 1958. Burgess helped organise the Leonard Wood Memorial Conference on Leprosy in Manila in 1931. The conference led to the establishment of the International Leprosy Association and the International Journal of Leprosy, and the Leonard Wood Memorial provided financial support for the Journal.
Although he was based in New York, Burgess frequently travelled to leprosaria around the world to gain firsthand experience of the disease. In a 1936 article for The Scientific Monthly, Burgess noted that many of these institutions provided housing for their patients, but neglected their medical treatment. While he supported the segregation of leprosy patients as a welfare measure, he expressed concern that segregation was impractical as a means to eradicate leprosy. He felt that money spent on isolating and caring for leprosy patients would be better spent in research: he called for the establishment of leprosy research centres in all countries affected by leprosy, and for a worldwide epidemiological survey.
Burgess met his future wife, Cora Turney, when they sat next to one another on a flight to New York. They married in 1937 and spent their honeymoon on a trip around the world to visit leprosy institutions. Perry legally adopted Cora's two children from a previous marriage, Coralyn and John (who was renamed Perry Jr). Cora, who had previously worked as a model, came to share Perry's devotion to the fight against leprosy, and supported him in his work. The two frequently travelled together to leprosaria and leprosy conferences around the world while their children attended boarding schools. They attended the International Congresses of Leprology in Cairo (1938), Havana (1948), and Madrid (1953).
In 1940, Burgess published a novel, Who Walk Alone. The book, presented as the true story of an anonymous man Burgess met at Culion Leper Colony, tells the story of an American soldier who contracts leprosy while serving in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. He fakes his own death to prevent his family from learning about his leprosy, then returns to the Philippines to live in Culion Leper Colony, where he spends the next twenty-five years. Who Walk Alone received the National Book Award and a Gold Medal from the Society for Libraries of New York University. Burgess wrote no other novels, but published an autobiography, Born of Those Years, in 1951.
In 1956 he received the Damien-Dutton Award. Other honours he received included Knight-Commander of the Hospital Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem and Hon. Knight Commander of the Spanish Civilian Order; he was also made an honorary member of many countries' national leprosy societies.
Burgess died in Unionville, Ohio, on 15 September 1962, three months after the death of his wife, Cora.
International Journal of Leprosy, Centennial Festskrift edition, Vol 41, No 2. 1973.
Burgess, Perry. 'Lepers and Leprosy.' The Scientific Monthly Vol. 42, No. 5 (May, 1936), pp. 396-402 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/15951
Doull, J.A. 'Perry Burgess 1886-1962' (obituary). International Journal of Leprosy Volume 31 , Number 1 Page: 113–4.
Feather, Carl. 'Author's daughter recalls life at Erie Vista.' Ashtabula Wave 30 July 2015. Online.
Hanks, John. ‘Dorothy Paul Wade 1897-1931’ (obituary). International Journal of Leprosy Volume 40, Number 1 Page 77-8.