Maurice Burg

Maurice Burg , MD

Maurice Burg, principle investigator at the Lab of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism, is interviewed in 2005 in this segment of “Living History of Physiology” by Mark Knepper, Chief of the Lab of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism. Dr. Burg has had a career that spans nearly 50 years, as he has been a leader in the field of renal physiology. He is known for his development of critical technology that has led to new pathways of discovering physiological principles that help us understand renal function and osmotic regulation. He is perhaps best known for his invention of the isolated perfused tubule technique. 

Growing up, Dr. Burg said he had no early interest in science, as that was before the days of science fairs. He enjoyed his science courses in high school, but no more than his English classes. In college, he majored in psychology, and Dr. Burg decided to go to medical school following his degree because he said it was either that or law school. When he got accepted to Harvard Medical School, he said he was shocked, but that was where his interest in the kidneys and renal system blossomed. His residency area was a surprise to him, and Dr. Burg ended up in the kidney and endocrine department, under the guidance of Chief of Medicine at the time, Maurice Strauss, whose interest was also in kidney physiology.

Dr. Burg wrote two papers early on, and his second one, “Factors influencing diuretic response to ingested water,” promoted the idea that water clearance to the body might be regulated by sodium delivery to the kidney. Many years later, he and his team were able to look at the transport mechanisms in the kidney that were responsible for this occurrence. Halfway through his residency at the VA hospital in Boston, Strauss approached Dr. Burg and told him he had contacts at the National Institutes for Health. Strauss told Dr. Burg he would be able to do research as the public health officer and still fulfill his army obligations instead of becoming a medical officer in the army.

Dr. Burg first worked at the NIH in 1957, and he was there for two years as a fellow working as a public health officer. He was required to complete his third year of residency back at the VA hospital, and once he finished that, he decided to return to the NIH to continue his research, and the rest is history, he says. He’s never looked back. Dr. Burg was initially Dr. Jack Orloff’s fellow in the Lab of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism, and his first assigned project was to look at the renal portal circulation of a chicken. He obtained two results from this project: the first was that sodium potassium ATPase is important for salt absorption in the kidney, and the second was that the chicken urethra is dirty and that he would never want to work with it again. 

His next research focused on renal transport in vitro (outside the animal). He showed that kidney tubules could survive in vitro. Dr. Burg adopted the kidney slice technique initially to do his experiments, but he quickly abandoned it because with kinetics, the thickness of the slices was detrimental to results. He found there was a diffusion delay for anything put into the solution, and the slices were thick enough that the oxygenation of tubules in the center was not appropriate. These problems led to Dr. Burg’s work with and invention of the isolated perfused tubule technique. He discusses in the interview at great length the whole process of his invention and the work surrounding his discovery.