Bourke, Patrick Martin Austin (1913–95), meteorologist and historian, was born 10 May 1913 in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, second son of Patrick M. Bourke, stationmaster, and Clare Bourke (née O'Sullivan). He was educated at Mount Sion CBS, Waterford, and UCC, where he was (among other activities) president of the Student's Union and editor of the student newspaper; he graduated B.Sc. (1933) in mathematical science, winning the Peel memorial prize for outstanding student of the year, and M.Sc. (1937) from NUI. After lecturing (1935–8) in mathematics at UCC, he joined (1938) the newly founded Irish Meteorological Service and served at Foynes, Co. Limerick, where he was officer in charge (1944) of the meteorological office at Shannon, Co. Clare, and Dublin Airport, subsequently becoming assistant director (1948) and director (1964–78) of the Irish Meteorological Service (latterly Met Éireann).
He became interested in agricultural meteorology, developed a technique for forecasting potato blight (phytophthora infestans), and published ‘The potato blight weather warning system in Ireland in 1952' (Irish Meteorological Service Technical Note, xiii (1953)). The establishment of a successful service of blight forecasts for Irish farmers led to his appointment (1953) by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as chairman of a commission, which studied and subsequently published a report on The forecasting from weather data of potato blight, and other plant diseases and pests (1955); he later served (1958–62) as president of the WMO commission for agricultural meteorology.
Under the UN technical cooperation scheme he was appointed adviser (1955–6) to the government of Chile to study the meteorological factors associated with the first blight epidemic to strike the potato crop there, which had caused great distress in southern Chile. The similarities and differences between the Chilean experience of the 1950s and that of the Irish famine of the 1840s stimulated an interest in Irish history resulting in his Ph.D. thesis ‘The potato, blight, weather and the Irish famine’ (1967); praised by his external examiner Kenneth Connell (qv), who deemed it worthy of a D.Sc., it was subsequently described as ‘awe-inspiring’ by Cormac Ó Gráda (Bourke, viii). His objectivity and sensitivity to the most calamitous event in Irish history, together with his pioneering interdisciplinary approach, changed the focus of attention from the administrative history of the period to the potato itself, its diseases, and its role in the rural economy; his work yielded new insights, opened up the field to the economic historian, and stimulated a wide-ranging reevaluation of the famine and of Irish economic and social history in the nineteenth century.
He published papers in a variety of scientific and historical journals, lectured in America, wrote articles in the Irish Times (‘Reassessing the famine’, Ir. Times, 19, 20 October 1966), and defended the actions of Charles Trevelyan (qv) (‘Apologia for a dead civil servant’, Ir. Times, 5, 6 May 1977). Awarded an hon. D.Sc. (1973) from NUI for his contribution to science, he later returned it in protest against US policies in Latin America, an action prompted by the award of an honorary degree by the NUI to US president Ronald Reagan (1984). On his retirement (1978), he continued his interdisciplinary interests which included collaboration with H. H. Lamb in an EEC (EU) project, publishing The spread of potato blight in Europe in 1845–6 and the accompanying wind and weather patterns (1993). In his eightieth year, as a tribute to his scholarship, fellow historians published selections from his thesis, many of his papers, public lectures, and a bibliography of his work in ‘The visitation of God’? The potato and the Irish famine (1993). In his reassessment of the famine, Bourke argued that ‘there is not a tittle of evidence . . . which points to deliberate malintent towards the Irish people on the part of the British government or its representatives in Ireland’ (Bourke, 178); he hoped that his work would contribute to an objective and unemotional discussion of the famine in all its aspects and ‘excise from our history books the corroding canker of hatred’ for with ‘such a change of heart we might truly speak of a visitation of God’ (Bourke, 184).
Recognised as an authority on potato blight and as an agrometeorologist of world repute, he received many distinctions including the bronze medal of the city of Pau, France (1965); the William F. Peterson gold medal, for his contribution to plant biometeorology (1975); and an hon. life membership, the vice-presidency, and the Butler medal of the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists (1988). He was a member of the editorial board of Agricultural Meteorology (Amsterdam) and of the governing board of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. In 2004 the Joint Working Group on Applied Agricultural Meteorology (a voluntary group with members from many organisations, coordinated by Met Éireann, and usually known as ‘AgMet’) inaugurated the Austin Bourke medal, which was presented to his wife, Clodagh Bourke (2004), to commemorate Bourke's contribution to agrometeorology and promote interest in the discipline.
Described as ‘a lovely man’ (Ó Gráda, in editors' foreword to ‘The visitation of God’?), genial and convivial, he enjoyed classical music and chess; he represented Ireland at the Warsaw chess olympiad (1935) and became Irish chess champion (1951). He lived at 143 Ballymun Rd., Dublin 9. He died 1 August 1995 in Dublin and donated his body to medical science. He married (1945) Clodagh Campbell; they had three sons and one daughter.