Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Burton banner image

Takao (in the background) and Hiyoriyama (in the foreground) water treatment plants, Shimonoseki, Japan. The basic plan of Takao plant was made by William Kinninmond Burton, and constructed by Touji Takigawa in 1906

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

Engineering achievements

In Japan, William Burton is revered as the foreign engineer who saved the country from cholera in the 19th century and built the country's first skyscraper.

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 Naohiro Taniguchi of the Japan Association of Drainage and Environment. "He planted the seed without which Japan could never have modernised so quickly."

His Life

Age Event Year
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 11 May 1856
Educated at Edinburgh Collegiate School
17 Apprenticeship with Andrew Betts Brown, Brown Brothers, Rosebank Ironworks, Edinburgh 1873
22 Chief draughtsman, Brown Brothers 1878
23 Entered Cosmo Innes junior's (his uncle) civil engineering partnership in London 1879
25 Resident engineer for London Sanitary Protection Association 1881
25 RE for sanitary systems for St Thomas's Hospital and Eton College 1881
31 Professor of Sanitary Engineering, Imperial University, Tokyo, Japan 1887
32 Engineer to the sanitary bureau of government of Japan 1888
32-42 Advised on water supplies for 17 towns in Japan 1888-98
34 Designed the 225 ft high Ryounkaku 'cloud-surpassing pavilion' in Asakusa, Tokyo 1890
34 Involved in formation of Photographic Society of Japan 1890
35 Elected Associate Member of Institution of Civil Engineers 1891
36 A daughter born 1892
38 published The Water Supply of Towns and the Construction of Waterworks 1894
38 Married Matsu Arakawa on 19 May 1894
40-43 Designing water-supply systems in Taiwan, under Japanese rule 1896-99
43 Died from liver infection on 5 August 1899
Buried in Aoyama Cemtery, Tokyo, Japan 1899

His Legacy

William Kinninmond Burton accepted the position of Professor of Sanitary Engineering at the Imperial University of Tokyo at the age of 31, and 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.

When Burton came to Japan it 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 (but did not collapse) in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake but is still remembered fondly.

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

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 commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

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.

More Information

W. K. Burton, 1856–99: “engineer extraordinaire” Olive Checkland, Britain and Japan: biographical portraits, ed. H. Cortazzi, 4 (2002), pp174–86
William Kinninmond Burton by M Chrimes in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers Vol 3; 1890-1920. McWilliam & Chrimes (eds), ICE, 2014
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)