Dorothy M. Burton, 92, nurse, Lying-In supervisor

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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When Dorothy M. Burton was a nurse in the 1930s, intensive care units in hospitals were rare and private duty nurses were called on to care for the critically ill.

Patients lucky enough to get Nurse Burton would find by their side a petite young woman in a white starched uniform, starched handkerchief in pocket, white cap, shoes, and stockings and a long navy blue cape, who gave them abundant care and compassion.

Mrs. Burton died Jan. 2 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of complications following a fall at her Newburyport home Dec. 17. She was 92.

Her daughter, Tracy Healey-Beattie of Hampton Falls, N.H., said she was alert enough to compliment her nurses for their care.

“Grandmother had an incredible work ethic,’’ said Maura Healey of Brookline. “In her 60s, she was still working hard as a nurse. She was a voracious reader, quick-witted, and had an incredible mind. I remember her doing cartwheels into her 70s.’’

Mrs. Burton was also known for her antique doll collection and was a member of the United Federation of Doll Collectors and a past president of the Doll Collectors of America Inc., founded in Boston in 1935.

Her granddaughter said her collection of antique dolls came from her interest in history, handicrafts, and “how things are made.’’ Her grandparents found them at “doll shows, auctions, and flea markets,’’ Healey said. “Grandmother loved and appreciated the time and craft that went into them.’’

Described by her family as “a caregiver since childhood,’’ Mrs. Burton started her nursing career in Boston. In the 1940s, she was supervisor of nursing for several years at the Boston Lying-In Hospital, her daughter said.

After she married Russell T. Burton in 1941 and they settled in Newburyport, she handled many private nursing cases, both at homes and at North Shore hospitals. At one time, she was president of District 4 of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Mrs. Burton continued nursing well into the 1970s before she retired to spend more time with her family; on community issues, as a member of the Newburyport Conservation Commission for three years; exhibiting her antique dolls; and serving on the board of directors of the Sons and Daughters of the First Settlers of Newbury.

She kept her hand in nursing by volunteering with the American Red Cross in Newburyport. A knitter, she was also known for her Aran Isle sweaters.

“Dorothy was an icon of the community of older parishioners,’’ said the Rev. James Broderick of Immaculate Conception Church, where Mrs. Burton was a daily communicant. “She was able to accomplish things they would only dream of doing.’’

“She was very warm and outgoing and giving,’’ he said. “When she liked you, she embraced you as a member of her family. She was outspoken and had good ideas about the way things were and appalled at the way they are. She was a voice in the community.’’

Mrs. Burton and her husband had spent most of their 68 years of marriage in the same house in Newburyport. Their daughter said they would often nostalgically measure the passage of time by looking out their kitchen window at a towering oak tree, which had been a sapling when they moved in.

Dorothy Mae Porter was born in Newburyport to Frank Summer and Katherine (Tracy) Porter. Eldest of three children, she always looked after her siblings.

In stories to her own children, Mrs. Burton recalled how at age 5 she walked the mile to the Kelley School in snow over her head, walk home for lunch, and then back to school and home again.

“It was mother’s duty at 12,’’ her daughter said, “to walk her grandfather, Jere W. Porter, a Civil War veteran, to downtown Newburyport to sit in front of the Grand Army of the Republic building. There, she would listen to him reminisce with other veterans. She was always proud that her grandfather fought in the war against slavery.’’

“Years later,’’ Healey-Beattie said, “my mother and father went to the voting booth on their walkers to cast their ballot for Barack Obama. She was so pleased to be part of this history: the first black president.’’

She was also proud of her Pilgrim ancestors who settled around Newbury. She was a descendant of William Titcomb, who came to this country from England in 1634, assigned to tend the cattle aboard the passenger ship Hercules.

In 1971, when her granddaughter, Maura, was born at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, Mrs. Burton was so upset that she had not been born in New England, Healey said, “that she dug up some soil from Newbury, put it in a plastic sandwich bag, and placed it under the bed on which I was born.’’

After Mrs. Burton graduated from Newburyport High School in 1935, she enrolled in the school of nursing at Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and graduated in 1938. The woman who ran the nurses’ residence had a brother, Russell, who worked on the fishing docks.

Their 68-year marriage was ideal, Healey-Beattie said. “Their faith sustained them in many situations and they shared many interests.’’

Family was paramount. Their son, Russell Thomas Burton Jr., showed his love for his mother by naming his commercial fishing boat, the Dorothy Mae, for her.

“Whether it was gardening or his fixing a broken doll, whatever mother was interested in, Dad took part,’’ Healey-Beattie said.

In addition to her husband, daughter, son, and granddaughter, Mrs. Burton leaves a sister, Ruth Ryan of Newburyport; four other grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at Immaculate Conception Church in Newburyport. Burial will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery.