Burks was the son of Robert and Palmyra Burnside Burks of Troup County, Georgia. He grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Ramsay High School in 1934. He earned his bachelor of science in chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1938 and then went into the U.S. Navy for service during World War II. Burks was discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in January 1946 and returned to Birmingham as a chemist at Southern Research Institute. He married Mary Louise Ivy in June of that year and she accompanied to Wisconsin where he completed his master's and PhD in organic chemistry.
Burks returned to Southern Research as a research chemist. Shortly after their son Robert Ivy "Robin" Burks was born, the Burks became involved in environmental protection. They were founding members of the Alabama Conservancy (now the Alabama Environmental Council) which campaigned to secure protection of the Sipsey Wilderness. Burks served as the organizations treasurer. He led the work to develop the Conservancy's recycling program and served as director of the Community Recycling & Resource Center from 1974 to 1977.
In 1977 Burks accepted a position as professor and chair of the Department of Polymer Science at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. The couple continued their advocacy work there, helping ensure the conservation of Okatoma Creek.
The Burks returned to Birmingham when he retired from teaching in 1984, and soon rejoined the Conservancy, where they headed up development of the Alabama Wildflower Watch program. Burks also served as president of the Birmingham Audubon Society and was active in the Alabama Wildflower Society, Alabama Wildlife Center and Birmingham Fern Society. As naturalists, Bob and Mary Burks are credited with first documenting the extremely rare Alabama Streak Sorus Fern, which was given the scientific name Stegnogramma burksiorum in their honor.
- "Robert E. Burks Jr." obituary (November 12, 2017) The Birmingham News