Burton’s intense interest in the culture and history of the South Carolina lowcountry resulted in three landmark books: South Carolina Silversmiths, 1690–1860 (1942); Charleston Furniture, 1700–1825 (1955); and the critically acclaimed Civil War narrative The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865 (1970). A dynamic individual with charm, refinement, and an engaging personality, Burton spent forty years as director of the Charleston Museum, retiring in 1972.
Museum director, naturalist, historian. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on June 5, 1898, Burton was the son of Elliot H. Burton and Aline Roussell. When he was two months old the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where his father established a highly successful lumber company. Of French parentage, his mother valued the arts and gracious living and had young Milby, as he was called, tutored in French and German. She took him abroad and introduced him to museums, requiring him to look carefully at everything so that he could describe to her the most important items he had seen. Through those experiences he developed an early interest in museum work.
After graduation from Gaud High School, Burton went to work at the Burton Lumber Company. As a young man his avid interest in hunting and fishing grew into an interest in natural history. In 1924 he joined a prominent Charleston insurance firm, and on March 1, 1924, he married Sally Morris Pinckney. He became a member of the board of trustees of the Charleston Museum in 1930 and was instrumental in the acquisition of the Arthur T. Wayne ornithological collection for the museum. In 1932 he was appointed director of the Charleston Museum, a position for which he was well suited. His membership in the Preservation Society, the St. Cecilia Society, and the Carolina Plantation Society opened many doors to funds for the support of museum projects.
Burton set out to enlarge the museum’s collection of freshwater fish, collecting in streams throughout the state. By 1934 he had personally added 3,156 specimens to the collection, and those specimens were the basis for Henry Fowler’s large monograph on South Carolina fish in 1935. During the late 1930s he secured the historic Joseph Manigault House for the museum, thereby saving it from destruction. At the same time, he was publishing notes reporting new records of fish from South Carolina. His museum career was interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, during which he was awarded the Silver Star for courage under fire.
Burton’s intense interest in the culture and history of the South Carolina lowcountry resulted in three landmark books: South Carolina Silversmiths, 1690–1860 (1942); Charleston Furniture, 1700–1825 (1955); and the critically acclaimed Civil War narrative The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865 (1970). He also contributed crucial editorial work on South Carolina Bird Life (1949), by Alexander Sprunt and E. Burnham Chamberlain, regarded as one of the best state-bird books. Burton was knowledgeable in many fields, and his academic pursuits led him to membership in the Walpole Society, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, the American Ornithological Union, and the South Carolina Historical Society. He was included in American Men of Science and held an honorary doctorate of law degree from the College of Charleston.
A dynamic individual with charm, refinement, and an engaging personality, Burton spent forty years as director of the Charleston Museum, retiring in 1972. He died in Charleston on August 27, 1977, leaving many friends and admirers and an international reputation. He was buried in the cemetery at old St. Andrew’s Church.
Byrd, Sam. “E. Milby Burton, Charleston’s Best Showman.” South Carolina Magazine 13 (June 1950): 10, 25.
“Milby Burton, Ex-Director of Museum, Dies.” Charleston News and Courier, August 29, 1977, pp. A1, A9.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investi- gations in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.