Gertrude Burroughs Rivers, 75, a professor of English and English literature at Howard University from 1939 until her retirement in 1973 and a former lay official of the Methodist Church, died of cancer Thursday, at George Washington University Hospital.

Dr. Rivers began her career at Talladega College in Alabama in 1925 as a French and English teacher. She then taught in the English Department at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro for four years before joining Howard University.

Her husband of 54 years, Dr. W. Napoleon Rivers, was chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at the old Miner Teachers College in Washington for 42 years.

Dr. Rivers earned a bachelor's degree with honors from Atlanta University and a master's and a doctorate from Cornell University.

Born in Camden, S.C., the daughter, of a Methodist minister, Dr. Rivers served on numerous local, national and international boards of the Methodist Church. She was a member of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington for more than 30 years.

Dr. Rivers served for more than eight years in the Woman's Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church's Board of Missions and was a board member of the Wesley Foundation of Howard University.

She was a member of the board of directors of the Phyllis Wheatley Y.W.C.A., a member of the general board of the National Council of Churches of Christ, a member of the board of managers of the United Church Women and a delegate to World Methodist Conferences held in Japan and Norway. She also served on the board of the Foundation for the International Christian University of Japan.

In addition, Dr. Rivers was a member of the planning institute of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Washington area, a former secretary of the Educational Foundation of the National Council of Negro Women and a former member of the Council's executive committee for the National Capital Area.

Dr. Rivers was the recipient of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies and received a scroll of appreciation from the Washington branch of the National Council of Negro Women for her contributions.

She was life member of the American Association of University Women and director of the association from 1955 to 1958.She also belonged to the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Besides her husband, survivors include two daughters, Charlotte V., of Washington, and Gertrude R. Robinson of Los Angeles, and one grandson.