When a nurse or physician asks for permission before examining a sexual assault victim—giving an abused woman back a modicum of control over her body—it is largely because of the life’s work of Professor Ann Wolbert Burgess. When FBI profilers track evidence at sex crime scenes or hunt cyber predators of children, they are building on Burgess’s research on links between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and subsequent perpetration.

Countless victims—from sexually violated soldiers, to college students who were date raped, to abused nursing home residents whose dementia or stroke symptoms prevent them from speaking—have benefited from Burgess’s decades of transformative research and track record in bringing abusers to justice.

Burgess’s signal achievements were officially recognized in October, when she was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing (AAN). Connell School Dean Susan Gennaro was one of three AAN Fellows who nominated Burgess for the honor, calling her “a leader in psychiatric mental health nursing whose groundbreaking work in caring for victims of violence has led to the development of forensic nursing as a specialty.”  

It is the particular vantage point of the nurse, who is the steady presence in clinical settings and often in the best position to notice telltale behaviors of trauma victims, that has put nursing at the vanguard of contemporary trauma treatment, Burgess said.

She learned this firsthand in the early 1970s, when she and Boston College sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom co-founded one of the country’s first hospital-based crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital—and introduced Rape Trauma Syndrome into the scientific literature.

Burgess and Holmstrom saw that rape victims resisted returning to a scene they associated with their attacks. Following up with them off-site and by telephone proved more effective in yielding information. The two tracked the health and well-being of 146 victims, ages 3 to 73, for a year, gathering evidence in trailblazing research that followed them through court hearings and trials, whether or not they testified.

As her research into rape became known in the early 1970s, Burgess was invited to the FBI Academy, which was just forming its profiling unit. She helped investigators study serial offenders and recognize the patterns connecting evidence from sex crime scenes to their motivations. That work led to grants for studying serial killers and sexual homicides, followed by a series of studies of serial child molesters and research that expanded the understanding of how victims become abusers. With Connell School Professor Emeritus Carol Hartman, Burgess studied the growth and development of very young trauma victims, their families, and communities. 

It is the particular vantage point of the nurse, who is the steady presence in clinical settings and often in the best position to notice telltale behaviors of trauma victims, that has put nursing at the vanguard of contemporary trauma treatment.

—Professor Ann Wolbert Burgess

Watercolor blood molecules

Burgess, who in 2009 was awarded the inaugural Ann Burgess Forensic Nursing Award by the International Association of Forensic Nurses, has made insightful connections between victims and perpetrators and how to treat victims in a way that does not induce flashbacks.

Now internationally recognized as a pioneer in the assessment and treatment of victims of trauma and abuse, Burgess continues her study of elder abuse in nursing homes, cyberstalking, and Internet sex crimes. She also teaches popular courses in victimology, forensic science, and forensic mental health.

With her natural curiosity and affinity for building bridges, Burgess is known for creating interdisciplinary teams of law enforcement, mental health, and medical practitioners for investigations. Partnerships are key to the success of one of her most recent efforts, the College Warrior Athlete Initiative, a collaborative wellness and fitness program for post-9/11 veterans that parlays the health, athletic, and educational resources of Boston College.

Burgess pours a lot of time and attention into that expanding program, the hallmark of a practitioner who is still in touch with many victims she got to know over the years through research and conferences. Some come and present at her classes, where they share their experiences of trauma and effective treatment, which involves finding ways to take control of memories—particularly the powerful sensory ones of sight, smell, and sound—in order to move on.

“The work is never done,” said Burgess, speaking in her West Newton home after spending the weekend training a delegation from Egypt in effective sexual assault investigations. “Men are still raping. Sexual assaults are happening on campuses, and if you have a woman veteran who has been deployed, you can assume somewhere she has had a tough time.”

But there is substantial progress to celebrate, she said, largely as a result of education and training. Rape evidence collection methods are not as mortifying as they once were. “Wounded warriors make no bones about having PTSD,” she pointed out. It is more socially acceptable to talk about trauma and to seek help.

For her part, Burgess shows no signs of slowing down as she moves on with a five-course teaching load and extensive research and professional commitments. She said, “I just have too much to do.”

—Judy Rakowsky, photograph by Josh Levine, artwork by Christine Hunt