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Biography of Denis Burkitt


Dr Burkitt-1

Dr Burkitt-2


Denis Parsons Burkitt

1911 - 1993








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A great twentieth-century Irish doctor

Born near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Ireland on 28 February, 1911, Denis himself admitted not being a stellar student.  In 1929 he applied to Trinity College Dublin to study his father’s profession, engineering, despite a tutor writing to his father expressing doubts if Burkitt would be capable of earning a degree.  During his first year at Trinity he joined Room 40, a small group of undergraduates who met regularly for prayer and Bible study, and committed his life to Jesus Christ.  His religious convictions would be a driving force for the rest of his life.  Soon after his commitment to Christianity, he felt that God was calling him to devote his life to medicine.  He changed his study to medicine and graduated with his MB on 5 July, 1935.  After graduating from Trinity College Dublin he continued his surgical training and obtained Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1938.  He went on to write his MD entitled ‘Spontaneous rupture of abdominal viscera’ in 1947. 

While serving as a ship’s surgeon in 1938, Burkitt decided he would be a surgeon first and a missionary second and hoped to work with the Colonial Service in West Africa.  During his five year sojourn as an army surgeon during World War Two, he married Olive Mary Rogers, a trainee nurse he had met while working as the Resident Surgical Officer at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Plymouth. 

Despite having his application to the Colonial Office being turned down on account of his loss of sight in one eye, Burkitt passed a medical and enlisted into the Royal Army Medical Corps.  He was posted to a military hospital in Mombasa.  During his 18 months as an army surgeon he travelled a great deal in East Africa learning Swahili in the process.  Towards the end of the war he applied again to the Colonial Office requesting work as a medical officer in Uganda.  This time his application was accepted.

In 1957 Burkitt was asked to examine a five year old boy in the paediatric ward who exhibited tumours in his neck and head.  A few weeks he saw another child with the same pattern of malignant jaw tumours.  The tumours were extremely fast growing and those affected died within weeks.  Believing he was witness to a previously undescribed cancer he began to contact a number of hospitals in Africa.

In 1961 along with colleagues Edward Williams and Clifford Nelson, Burkitt undertook a 16,000 km research travel visiting at least 56 hospitals in East and Southern Africa.  Their mission was to study the occurrence and distribution of lymphomas.  Much to their delight, they visited some of the places Livingstone had worked a century before them.  With meticulous data collection along the way they soon realised that the lymphoma was correlated with the same temperature and rainfall zones as malaria leading them to initially believe that the lymphoma may have been linked with the distribution of certain insect carriers as malaria.  Always one to conduct his research in the most frugal of manner, the entire expedition cost £678.00 according to Burkitt’s biographer Brian Kellock.

Burkitt’s first published his in The British Journal of Surgery in 1958.  The publication went unnoticed.  It was his article, cowritten with Greg O’Conor, entitled ‘Malignant tumours in African children:  A clinical syndrome’ and published in Cancer in 1961 that would make a mark in the medical world.

While attending a UK lecture, Burkitt met young virologist Doctor, now Sir, Tony Epstein.  Burkitt sent Epstein some tumour samples and after three years of searching, Epstein’s team demonstrated a virus in the tumour cells.  The Epstein-Barr virus was the first to be shown to be oncogenic in humans.  Following this it was noted that the ‘lymphoma belt’ mapped by Burkitt in Africa corresponded to the areas where mosquitoes thrived, i.e., low level high heat and water and where malaria was endemic.  The malaria caused the suppression of childhood immune system and this allowed the Epstein-Barr virus to stimulate lymphoid cells to undergo malignant transformation.

Using creative thinking, Burkitt convinced the pharmaceutical companies to supply chemotherapeutic agents. His logic was that due to the lack of radiotherapy equipment and that none of his patients had been exposed to X-rays, and relying solely on medication, the drug companies could assess what effect their drugs were truly having on patients.  In giving Burkitt their drugs free of charge, he would use them and report on their efficacy.  As Burkitt noted, “Chemotherapy agents were obtained free of charge from the manufacturers who were approached in an attitude of begging, clothed in the appearance of offering opportunities.   In western countries it was difficult to assess the effect of chemotherapy because in most patients, radiotherapy had also been used.”  Since monitoring patients was so difficult he thought it unwise to work close to the toxic limits of the drugs, Burkitt discovered that not only was he curing the children of their tumours, he was doing it with drug doses so low that they caused none of the expected side effects.  Expert pathologists from around the globe soon acknowledged that this was a newly described disease and coined the name ‘Burkitt’s lymphoma’ to describe this particular type of tumour.  The enormity of Burkitt’s contribution can be assessed from the statistic that Burkitt’s lymphoma accounts for over half of the childhood cancers in Africa.

Denis Burkitt is one of the few medical doctors who won world acclaim for two medical discoveries.  The first, as summarised above, was to uncover the causes and pioneer a cure for the cancer known now as Burkitt’s lymphoma.  The second was to confirm the link between many Western diseases and the lack of fibre in the Western diet.

It was naval surgeon Captain TL Cleave who first introduced Burkitt to his theory that refined carbohydrates was the source of many chronic diseases in the Western world.  After meticulously researching the world wide geographical distribution of bowel cancer, he hypothesised that the deficiency of fibre in the Western diet was the major factor responsible for the high prevalence of this disease in affluent societies.  Although at first not considered to be notable, his publications on the role of fibre in the diet increasingly became cited over the next ten years. By 1980 his works were considered ‘citation classics’ on the subject of bowel cancer.  As his publications on Burkitt’s lymphoma by this time were also considered ‘citation classics’ it is worth mentioning that not many men have achieved this distinction in two entirely unrelated fields of medical research.

Burkitt was the recipient of many prestigious international awards throughout his career.  In 1982 he received the Bristol-Myers Award jointly with Tony Epstein for the work they had done in discovering and establishing the importance of the virus that became known as the Epstein-Barr Virus.  That same year Burkitt received the Mott General Motors Award.  Denis Burkitt was also made an honorary Fellow of Trinity College, its highest award, for service in medicine and surgery.  Denis Burkitt died on 23 March, 1993.  His contributions relieved the world of much misery by directly providing a cure of Burkitt’s lymphoma and indirectly by preventing disease through his high-fibre diet.  It has been noted that throughout his life he remained modest and humble.  When asked to autograph a book used to write:

Dr Burkitt

‘Attitudes are more important than abilities
Motives are more important than methods
Character is more important than cleverness
And the Heart takes precedence over the head.’

Photo Credit:

On a personal note, family was always of major importance in Denis Burkitt’s life and we are pleased and honoured to welcome to the symposium his wife Olive Burkitt and two of Denis’ daughters, Judy Howard and Cas Boddam Whetham.  Daughter Rachel was unable to attend but sends her regards.

1985    Kellock, Brian.  The Fibre Man.  The Life story of Dr Denis Burkitt.  Tring:  Lion Publishing plc.

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Last updated 21 September 2016 by Tercentenary (Email).