Alfred W. Burton, medical practitioner, historian and africana collector, was the son of Alfred Robinson Burton and his wife Mary Ann Blakemore. He received his schooling at Dale College, King William's Town, and passed the matriculation examination of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1899. Proceeding to Scotland he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he received medals for his performance in chemistry and zoology, and a bursary for his studies in anatomy. He qualified as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Bachelor in Surgery (ChB) in 1909 and that same year received the Conan Doyle Prize. After qualifying he worked in hospitals in Edinburgh, Bristol and Dublin for short periods, until his return to King William's Town in 1911. He was married to Irene Ruth Biddle.
Burton was licensed to practise medicine in the Cape Province on 25 July 1911 and continued doing so until his retirement in 1945. During this time he studied the diseases among the indigenous population of the Eastern Cape. His findings were published in a paper on "Common diseases among African male Xhosas and Fingoes in the border districts", for which he was awarded the Hamilton-Maynard Medal by the South African Medical Association in 1934. Another paper by him dealt with the thorny issue of "Medical practitioners and dispensing" (Journal of the Medical Association of South Africa, 1927). He also compiled a report on the early history and financial position of Grey Hospital in King William's Town (1932).
Outside his profession Burton was particularly interested in the history and culture of the Eastern Cape. Among others he collected documents relating to the history of the border districts and the frontier wars. This collection was later acquired by the Cory Library for Historical Research at Rhodes University. He studied the traditions, customs and history of the local African population, as well as the history of European colonisation of the Eastern Cape. His investigations in this broad field resulted in books on The Highlands of Kaffraria; a review of outstanding incidents in Kaffirland and British Kaffraria leading up to the rise of King William's Town, Keiskama Hoek and East London, with special reference to the history and situation of Fort Stokes (1942, 1969) and Sparks from the border anvil (1950). He was awarded the medal of the Historical Monuments Commission for his historical research in 1943, and in 1966 Rhodes University conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree.
Burton became a member of the South African Biological Society in 1920. After his retirement he started studying the microscopic flora and fauna of ponds in the Border districts.