Tom Burns was born on the 16th January 1913, in Bethnal Green in London. He attended the school locally, and then completed a BA at the University of Bristol. Following this he taught at private schools in Tunbridge Wells and Norwich, until 1939.
During the Second World War he served on the Friends Ambulance Unit from 1939-1945, spending 1941-1943 as a prisoner of war in Germany. One of his earliest essays "Men and Barbed Wire" recounts his experience as POW. After the war he worked as a research assistant for the West Midlands Group on Post-War Reconstruction and Planning from 1945-1949. He joined the Social Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh as a lecturer in the Social Sciences Research Department 1949.
Tom’s first academic position at Edinburgh was in the Department of Social Study in 1949 as a research lecturer and subsequently reader, in what was then the Social Environment Research Centre (later to become the Social Sciences Research Centre.) His partner Rosemary was a social psychologist in the same department; another colleague at this time was Erving Goffman, whose PhD fieldwork was conducted between 1949 and 1951 on the Shetland island of Unst.
In 1965 he established the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and became its first Professor. Burns had wide ranging interests but specialised in organisations and institutional theory. During his career he worked to forge links with academics in Europe and North America and encouraged visitors to the department at Edinburgh, which assisted with its development. He published a number of works during his lifetime and also left considerable unpublished papers. In 1961 he wrote 'The Management of Innovation' along with G.M.Stalker, which explored the horizontal links which existed in innovative companies, but which were not officially recognised in their hierarchical set ups. His academic work explored other organisations such as the BBC and BP, and saw him publish numerous works on these subjects including, 'BBC: Public Institution and Private World' (1977), 'Management in the Electronics Industry: a study of eight English Companies' (1958), 'Human Problams of Innovation' (1960), 'Industrial Man' (1969). Alongside his work on organisations Burns was interested in wider themes and wrote on 'Sociology on literature and drama' (1973) with his wife Elizabeth.
Burns retired from the University of Edinburgh in 1981 but remained a major figure in the field of sociology and was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1992. He died on the 20th June 2001.