Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Queensferry Crossing

The Queensferry Crossing, Scotland, under construction in 2016. Jacobs/Arup client engineers

William Kinninmond Burton (1856-1899), public health engineer, educator and Japan's saviour from cholera

William Burton

Born in Edinburgh 11 May 1856, son of John Hill Burton (1809-1881), the Historiographer Royal for Scotland.

Educated at Edinburgh Collegiate School, and trained by Andrew Betts Brown of Brown Brothers, mechanical and hydraulic engineers, Rosebank Ironworks, Edinburgh and from 1878-79 was their chief draughtsman.

At age 32 Burton accepted the position of Professor of Sanitary Engineering at the Imperial University of Tokyo, where he came to be the Japanese Government's consultant on sanitary conditions and water supply for most major cities including Tokyo and Japanese-occupied Formosa (now Taiwan). His texts based on these were widely published.

Burton came to Japan in 1887. At the time, Japan was suffering from epidemics of diseases such as cholera that were killing as many as 110,000 people a year. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of clean drinking water and the Japanese tradition of collecting night soil for use as fertiliser. In a hectic 12 years, Burton supervised the establishment of fresh water and sewage systems in most of the major cities across Japan.

Burton also designed Japan's first "skyscraper", the famous Ryounkaku, a 12-storey brick building that towered above Tokyo's low-rise wooden buildings. The hexagonal structure became a Tokyo landmark, visited by thousands of Japanese a day. It was pulled down after being severely damaged by the 1923 earthquake but is still remembered fondly and a plaque marks where it stood.

Concurrently he founded the Photographic Society of Japan and provided the illustrations for John Milne's seminal papers on earthquake engineering.

In Shimonoseki, in southwestern Japan, the sand filtering system Burton built more than 100 years ago produces water so pure that today it is bottled and sold with his picture on the label.

Other remains of his water supply works are in: Tokyo, Hakodatew, Aomori, Numata, Nagasaki, Fuluoka, Osaka, Okayama, Kobe, Moji, Omuta, Kofu, Nagoya, Niigata, Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Tai Pei.

In Japan he is revered as the foreign engineer who saved the country from cholera in the 19th century and built the country's first skyscraper. Naohiro Taniguchi of the Japan Association of Drainage and Environment and other Japanese engineers pay annual tribute to Burton at his grave in Tokyo. In 2006 Japanese admirers unveiled a plaque near the house where Burton grew up in Edinburgh to remind Britons of Burton's achievements and commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

When Burton came to Japan in 1887, he was one of a number of foreign engineers and teachers hired by the Japanese government to help modernise a country stuck in feudal times. Among these men, Burton is particularly respected for the devotion he brought to the job. "He was clearly a man of incredible energy. When he came to Japan we didn't even have the concept of disease prevention, we just thought one got sick and went to hospital. Burton taught us differently,'' said Mr. Taniguchi. ''He planted the seed without which Japan could never have modernised so quickly."

The Japanese believe Burton's tireless efforts on behalf of their country contributed to his early death aged 43, in 1899, as he was preparing to return home with his Japanese wife and young daughter.

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