Burke Rehabilitation Hospital Celebrates 100th Anniversary

Young John Masterson Burke, a son of Irish immigrants, was sure of at least one thing—he wanted to become rich and philanthropic, giving away his fortune. As Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, that boyhood dream appears to have held true. 

Born on July 2, 1812—just one month after a nascent United States had declared war on Great Britain—Burke’s path from Manhattan to leafy Westchester was a winding one. He joined the labor force at 12, taking up roles as a woolen house clerk and later a metal foundry workhand. After focusing his studies on mechanical engineering, Burke jumped at a post in the Yucatan Peninsula to help launch Mexico’s first manufacturing cotton enterprise. 

Seven years on the job proved tough. Two of his four engineers died of malaria. Without an architect on-site, the factory caved in and collapsed twice. Overseeing the nearly 200 families who helped with the operation was unlike anything Burke had ever undertaken. Through his experience in seeing workers unable to earn a living following illness or an early hospital discharge, the importance of organized, convalescent care became clear. 

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John Masterson Burke 

Burke continued to build his fortune with a stint in the Cuban sugar trade and later focusing on a growing post-bellum demand for trains and transportation. In the 1860s, he acquired tracts of railroad-prime land across the country, riding a wave of industrialization and reconstruction. Burke’s business endeavors put him in the company of such Gilded Age elites as railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt and wealthy banker Moses Taylor, who headed what would become Citibank.

Personal fortune, however, did not move Burke from his childhood goal. He managed his money carefully, leaving friends and family with little idea of the unmarried magnate’s worth. A modest, unadorned walk-up on 47th Street in Manhattan was home.

Teaching and mentoring, meanwhile, became a priority. Burke passed along the best farming and distribution methods to factory managers. Wall Street traders looked to the industrialist—with his signature bow tie, cane, and neat muttonchops that curled up toward the corners of his mouth—for insight into the inner workings of international commerce. After finally retiring from business, Burke shared his ambitious philanthropic plan with friends, including noted architect Stanford White and New York City Mayor Abraham S. Hewitt. The plan focused on the need for medical care, training, and research “located in the country with easy distance to New York.”

Twin forces drove Burke’s interest in interim care. New machines and scientific methods were shifting medicine from homeopathy to institutions. Patients needed help from professionals to effectively recover from their ills. Secondly, social movements emphasized community care. Jane Addams’ Hull House and Clara Barton’s American Red Cross provided care for the underprivileged and those in need across the nation. At the same time, industrialization was pushing convalescence to the suburbs, where clean air and green hills were thought to help patients recuperate faster.

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When Burke died at age 98, he left $4.5 million (more than $100 million in today’s dollars) for convalescent care, true to his lifelong dream. As soon as the gift’s size became public, a band of distant relatives legally challenged the action and attempted to recover the funds, claiming Burke’s insanity. The case was quickly dismissed, and 61 acres were purchased in Westchester for the Winifred Masterson Burke Relief Foundation, named in honor of Burke’s mother.

World War I soon broke out, and the 150-bed facility transformed into a naval hospital for soldiers and veterans, with prosthetics, physical therapy, and speech restoration taking center stage. Thousands of sailors were admitted in 1918 alone. With an emphasis on cardiac care, the foundation became one of the founding members of the American Heart Association and later provisioned new research in partnership with Weill Cornell Medical College. After World War II, the foundation changed its focus and name to the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital. 

This shift in direction led to a series of firsts—adding wheelchair ramps to the hospital gym, promoting research on strokes and Parkinson’s disease, and exploring new robotic therapy. The hospital added clinical internships and outpatient services, and in 1979, the annual 5K Heels & Wheels event began raising needed funds. 

Today, patients from across the world are serviced by the hospital’s more than 1,000 assistants and doctors, several of whom have earned spots on Westchester Magazine’s “Top Doctors” list. Last year, the Center for Pain and Sensory Recovery opened its doors. Although new outpatient services and satellite clinics are being planned throughout the county, the vision remains the same—if a patient is provided a cane, the goal is eliminating the need for it.

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Dan Robbins majored in history and American studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard.

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