Burke, Patrick (Thomas; 'Tom') (1923–2008), Carmelite priest, scientist and co-founder of the Young Scientist exhibition, was born Thomas Burke on 4 November 1923 in Dublin, one of five children (four boys and a girl) of Edmund Burke, and his wife Elizabeth (née Traynor), who later lived at 27 Mount Shannon Road, Rialto, Dublin. His father worked for the Jacob's biscuit company. Tom was educated at Synge Street CBS and from an early age was interested in the religious life; he was an altar server in the Carmelite church in Whitefriar Street, where his uncle was a Carmelite brother.
When he left school, he joined the Order of Carmelites (O.Carm.), taking the name Patrick when he was professed in 1942. Carmelite colleagues knew him by that name, or as 'Pat' or 'Paddy', though friends and family still called him 'Tom'. He entered UCD to study science, with a major in physics, and graduated in 1945 with an honours degree. In the 1940s, the physics department in UCD, under John James Nolan (qv) and his brother Patrick Nolan (qv), was particularly active in the study of atmospheric physics, and Burke undertook research in their group. He worked on radon gas and on aerosols in outdoors environments. With J. J. Nolan, he developed apparatus to examine the behaviour of the substance then called Radium A (now recognised as polonium-218, a product of the decay by alpha emission of radon) in the atmosphere, and to study the influence of meteorology and other factors. UCD was then located in the city centre, which did not provide ideal conditions for observation, and Burke installed the equipment at the Carmelite Fathers' house at Mount Carmel, near Rathgar, in the suburbs. The work, reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in 1953, was still being cited twenty years later. He was awarded an M.Sc. degree in 1947, and a Ph.D. in 1949 for a thesis entitled 'Investigations on radioactive matter in the atmosphere'.
Burke's workload must have been particularly demanding, and it is difficult to see how he managed to give full attention to both science and religion. While conducting his own postgraduate physics research, he was lecturing on physics and mathematics to undergraduates in St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1946–8 and 1952–3), and he was registered for the H.Dip.Ed., awarded in 1953. At the same time, he was continuing studies in preparation for the priesthood; he was ordained in 1951. After studies at Milltown Park, in 1952 he gained the baccalaureate and licentiate in theology of the Gregorian University of Rome. In 1953 he was sent to teach physics and mathematics in the Carmelites' school, Terenure College. There he was an inspiring teacher; several of his pupils pursued careers in physics, and three would later join him in the physics department of University College. He was prior and headmaster of Terenure College (1958–61); when the college celebrated its centenary in 1960, Burke orchestrated impressive events, such as a high mass and luncheon attended by President Éamon de Valera (qv), Taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv), Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv), Bishop Donal Lamont (qv), and many other distinguished guests. To honour the college, as well as in recognition of Burke's importance as an educator, the NUI in that year gave him the degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa).
The following year, Tom Burke returned to UCD to work in the physics department, and remained there until retirement in 1988. He continued to carry out research, but was particularly involved with teaching large numbers of undergraduates; his workload in running first-year teaching laboratories was particularly heavy. Throughout his time in UCD, Burke maintained his connections with and contributions to the life of his order; he made the journey every lunchtime from UCD back to the order's friary at Gort Muire in Ballinteer, just to spend five or ten minutes with his community, as they participated in the short midday prayer of the divine office. He was well known for the retreats that he organised for religious, and was involved with the Carmelite third (secular) order, of which he was national director for several years in the 1990s. He almost singlehandedly produced The Carmelite Family (1999–2005), a periodical aimed at lay members. Burke took an interest in other aspects of lay education; in the 1960s he gave lectures in the Dublin Institute of Catholic Sociology, and helped develop training for public health nurses, initially in a one-year course held in Gort Muire. He was subsequently founding chairman of the Institute of Public Health Nursing. In recognition of his work, he received honorary fellowship, the highest honour given by the RCSI. Although not an expert on canon law, he was able in 1983 to participate in courses all over Ireland and in Zimbabwe, explaining the implications of the church's new Code of Canon Law (working from the document in the original Latin version, the only one available at first).
The Carmelite order chose him as provincial regent of studies in 1961 and in 1964, and he taught theology to students for the priesthood in Gort Muire (1962–4). The general council of the Carmelite order appointed him regent of studies in the theological school of the order's International College of St Albert, in Rome. As well as teaching theology there for a time, he held a visiting research professorship in the Istituto di Fisica dell'Atmosfera of Rome (1965–8), and carried out research with the Italian air force on possible ways to disperse fog.
It was when Burke was a visiting research fellow at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology that he attended an event which provided the impetus for the major initiative in Irish science education for which he is most widely remembered. In 1963, Burke and a UCD colleague, Tony Scott (a former Terenure College pupil), heard about a school science fair in Albuquerque, at which school students prepared scientific projects to be judged and publicly exhibited. The UCD scientists were struck by how useful the concept was, as a way to involve secondary-school students in all aspects of science, and decided they should try to establish a similar event in Ireland.
The project might very well not have had any future in Ireland; a priest lecturer and a young physicist might well not have had the necessary drive and skills to translate an American example into an Irish context, but Burke's experience in secondary and third-level education gave him a particularly clear understanding of how to engage student participation, and he was also convinced of the importance of applied science to the development and modernisation of industry in Ireland. Just as importantly, his rather unexpected talents for publicity, networking and promotion ensured that, with backing initially from Aer Lingus, the national airline, the idea very rapidly became a real event, which was immediately a success, then became an annual event, and latterly an institution.
The very first Young Scientists exhibition, held in Dublin's Mansion House in January 1965 (less than two years after the New Mexico event), had a high-profile launch; Taoiseach Seán Lemass opened it, and the newspaper reports named all its important supporters, as well as all the students who won prizes. It was excellent publicity for Aer Lingus, and when eventually the arrangement with the airline ended, various entities, principally the telecommunications company BT Ireland (and its predecessor company, Esat Telecom), the major sponsor from 1998, stepped in to secure the survival of what had become one of the largest and most prestigious inter-school competitions in Ireland. Many competitors went on to careers in science, and some of the projects have subsequently been developed into viable commercial projects, but even more importantly, the publicity round the event has transmitted the participants' enthusiasm for science to a much wider public. In acknowledgement of the influence of the exhibition (latterly termed the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition) on generations of schoolchildren and on the development of science education in Ireland, Fr Burke and Dr Tony Scott received honorary doctorates in October 2007 from the Dublin Institute of Technology. In the fiftieth anniversary event (2013), participation by school pupils from all over the island of Ireland was higher than ever, with more than 1,200 competitors taking part. Dr Tony Scott's lifelong commitment to the complex organisation of the event was honoured in the anniversary celebrations, and Fr Burke was not forgotten, though he had died in Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin, on 30 March 2008.
In the eulogy delivered at Fr Burke's requiem mass on 2 April 2008 in Whitefriar Street church, his former pupil and later colleague, Fr C. O'Donnell, O.Carm., developed a particularly apt and graceful metaphor to express the duality of the life and career of Thomas/Patrick Burke. O'Donnell suggested that for Burke, science and religion were two parallel lines, which could, as in non-Euclidean geometry, meet at infinity; in religious terms, the two parallel lines of Burke's life had met in infinity.