Alumni Profile: Walter Burgdorf, MD '69
Walter Burgdorf, MD, a 1969 graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, is a master of routine. For the past 40 years, every morning if at all possible, he has started his day the same way-by bringing his wife Dorothee coffee in bed.
With similar attention and care-and a little serendipity-Burgdorf has nurtured a rich career in dermatology on two continents. It has included clinical practice; pathological services; academic leadership; and medical writing, editing and translating.
Burgdorf is a world expert on a variety of dermatological conditions and skin cancer.
He is widely respected for his work in a variety of practices covering both clinical and pathological services related to skin. He is an academic writer, editor and translator of prodigious productivity. And he is co-author of one of the world's most widely used dermatology textbooks.
Burgdorf's home base for the past two decades has been the village of Tutzing, located on a finger lake south of Munich, Germany, with commanding views of the Alps. It's about 4,510 miles from Wisconsin, but he maintains a strong connection to Madison and his alma mater. As a class representative, he has helped plan many reunions and has not missed a single one since moving to Germany.
He counts several School of Medicine and Public Health faculty members as friends, including Robert Schilling, MD '43, Burgdorf's laboratory instructor during his sophomore year at medical school.
In a visit to Madison two years ago, Burgdorf recalls, "We bought subs at Fraboni's and had a nice lunch in Bob's office under the seventh-floor rafters of the old university hospital."
On such visits, Burgdorf may join Tuesday morning grand rounds and later take in some of the city's most venerable destinations. You might spot him trying on shoes at the Shoe Box in Black Earth (size 15), ordering a pizza at Paisan's or splurging on a turtle sundae at Michael's on Monroe Street.
"I absolutely love Madison and enjoy extolling its virtues," he says.
Full Circle to Germany
World War II produced a profound uprooting of Burgdorf's early life.
"I was born in Chemnitz, an industrial town in Germany, in 1943," he says. "My mother, an American citizen, and I left Germany on the first boat carrying civilians from Europe back to the U.S. My father, a German chemical company executive, followed a few years later. We wound up living in Shorewood, Wisconsin, where I went to high school."
Germany also served as the setting where Burgdorf met his wife. In 1970, he was sent to Germany while serving as a general medical officer with the U.S. Army. Eventually, he and Dorothee moved to the U.S., crossing the Atlantic on board ship as he had done years before with his mother.
Dermatology is strongly linked to Germany and France, Burgdorf notes. Before World War II, almost every academic American dermatologist trained at some time in one of these countries, he says.
Burgdorf's interest in dermatology began in his teenage years when he developed severe acne. His dermatologist was UW-Madison's Roger Laubenheimer, MD '50.
"He was very kind to me and we stayed friends all these years until his death last spring," he says.
Burgdorf has never second-guessed his career choice.
"I was totally inept with a stethoscope so dermatology and later dermatopathology services were easy choices I have never regretted," he says with his characteristic self-deprecating sense of humor.
Following dermatology residency at University of Minnesota Hospitals, he completed a dermatopathology fellowship. He was fortunate to work with Juan Rosai, MD, one of the world's foremost surgical pathologists, to pioneer a tumor detection process involving labeled monoclonal antibody stains.
After a stint on the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Burgdorf took a position as professor of pathology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. In 1984, he was named chair of the department.
"New Mexico had a long tradition of innovation in medical education, so my work there was rewarding, although time-consuming," says Burgdorf, reflecting upon his nearly 10 years there.
He was considering other career options when serendipity played its hand.
A Second Career Blossoms
When his good friend Gerd Plewig, MD, became chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Ludwig-Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, and another friend requested his help in private dermatopathology practice there, Burgdorf decided to strike out in a new direction.
"With little difficulty, I moved to Germany and switched from the U.S. system to the German one," he says, noting that he simultaneously worked at the university and in private practice.
He found private practice in Germany invigorating, as it offered opportunities to learn about aspects of dermatology not usually seen in the United States.
"Dermatologists in Germany are generally trained in allergy, they care for chronic venous insufficiency and leg ulcers and they may sub-specialize in proctology or andrology," he notes.
There was another twist of fate when unexpected writing and editing opportunities came knocking. His colleagues began asking him to translate German dermatology texts into English and to edit English articles. So in 1998, he gave up his German medical practice to concentrate on medical writing, editing and translating.
This part of his career has blossomed in the intervening years. He recently edited the 1,500-page Braun-Falco's Dermatology, started by Otto Braun-Falco, MD, a friend and earlier chairman at LMU. Using his expertise in translation, Burgdorf edited the fifth German edition as well as the third English edition. The sixth edition will be published in 2012 as will the historical tome The Pantheon of Dermatology, which Burgdorf edited and translated.
Burgdorf says he's probably proudest of the second edition of Braun-Falco's Dermatology published in the late 1990s and diligently typed on his antiquated computer.
Of Hiking, Reading and Reflection
Burgdorf enjoys reading books based on historical events. Currently he recommends Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson and Address Unknown by Kressman Taylor. Both small books offer insight into the lives of ordinary people during the Nazi regime.
Hiking is another favorite extracurricular. When he left New Mexico, he celebrated with a group of friends by hiking down and up the Grand Canyon. And two years ago he fulfilled a lifelong dream of hiking the 100-mile West Highland Way in Scotland.
Looking back, Burgdorf says his training in Madison was a launching pad of inspiration and innovation.
"I was lucky to be in medical school at a time when everyone knew everyone," he explains. "I am grateful that my clinical teachers instilled in me a deep respect for patients and the need for continuing medical education-before the term even existed."
Date Published: 03/02/2012