Breaking Barriers: Jane Wolfe’s “Burl: Journalism Giant and Medical Trailblazer”

Early in her engrossing biography of Burl Osborne, Jane Wolfe establishes the many obstacles that her subject faced and triumphantly overcame. The result is a biography that ceaselessly inspires the reader along with being both informative and entertaining. Burl: Journalism Giant and Medical Trailblazer is a fascinating look into a man who defied expectations and left his mark in the realms of both medicine and journalism.

Burl “Buckskin” Osborne was born in 1937 in an obscure Kentucky mining camp town to a teenage mother. Just one of his many accomplishments was the fact that he was the first of his Appalachian family to graduate from college. Burl was drawn to the world of reportage and learned from excellent teachers to write in “clear, direct, active, exciting sentences.” His writing ability, energy, and relentless drive all served him well and he had an innate instinct for captivating, human stories.

Osborne’s own story was perhaps the most fascinating of all, for he was born with kidney disease when such a diagnosis was a death sentence and organ transplant surgery was still in its infancy. Wolfe notes how Osborne wrote and spoke about his own health struggles in a time when, before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Osborne was expected to keep his health private at the risk of losing his career. As Wolfe relates, “Chronic health problems in the 1960s were often viewed as personal failings or tragedies.”

A failing kidney might have deterred any other man from pursuing the demanding life of a journalist, but not Osborne. He made up for his poor health and diminutive stature with charisma, drive, flashy shirts, and Napoleon-like aspiration. His rapid climb up the ladder of The Associated Press was only briefly interrupted by the deterioration of his kidneys. In 1965 he became one of the few patients in the world to be dialyzed at home, a delicate and painstaking process that he described (with typical understatement) as “a medical laundromat.”

After receiving a healthy kidney from his mother, Osborne became the 130th person in the world to undergo a live kidney transplant and only the third person in the world to be treated with triple-drug antirejection therapy. The injections were extremely painful and the serum itself was derived from the hindquarters of a horse; Osborne humorously described the injections as feeling like a kick in the rear from the animal. He barely allowed himself to recover from the transplant surgery before he was skiing in Aspen.

Described as ultra-competitive and demanding, Osborne nevertheless was an excellent leader and protective of the best interests of his staff. One of the best decisions made during his time at The News was hiring Paula LaRocque, a writing coach who helped expand the AP style manual and set up “an in-house cross-fertilization program whereby veteran reporters and columnists mentored others.” Such a practice only strengthened the quality of the paper and is something that surely every major publication would benefit from. Osborne’s promotion of women was not an anomaly while he was at The News, and he was described as never having once said “Don’t worry your pretty little head” to his female colleagues. This scrappy Appalachian turned big city editor was certainly no Don Draper.

Osborne eventually became chairman of The Associated Press and he recalled his service for the AP including “virtually every field job that we have. I missed only a foreign service assignment, although some of my friends tell me that my early West Virginia days amounted to the same thing.” Osborne eventually underwent a historic second kidney transplant, this time receiving a healthy kidney from his brother, but shortly afterward he retired from the AP and died suddenly in 2012 from septic shock.

Wolfe made the conscious choice to write Burl according to AP standards and in the AP style. In the foreword, she mentions that this is a stylistic choice that Burl would have liked. While the AP style makes for briskness and clarity, it does not always support in-depth biography. Wolfe writes of Osborne that “The principles Burl carried with him from the AP were unimpeachable, but some of the rules he clung to from his time there made crafting more dynamic and compelling stories difficult to achieve.”

The same can be said of portions of Burl itself: sections of the biography lack emotional detail and nuance, particularly where the breakdown of his first marriage and the deeply uncomfortable “What do you say to a naked lady?” story is concerned. Also, the first third of Burl would have been an even more valuable read if Wolfe had dived more deeply into the women in his life, without whom both his career and his life would have been curtailed. Nevertheless, Burl is an engrossing portrait study of an indomitable man who “simply wasn’t going to allow himself to be defeated.”

Burl: Journalism Giant and Medical Trailblazer
By Jane Wolfe
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Published September 06, 2022