Symposium Highlights Denis Parsons Burkitt’s Contribution to Medical Science

Posted on: 27 June 2011

A symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Denis Parsons Burkitt, renowned physician, medical scientist and Trinity College alumnus, took place recently at Trinity College Dublin.  The symposium, which was entitled Denis Parsons Burkitt: Irish by Birth, Trinity by the Grace of God – A Life Celebrated, was organised by TCD’s Professor of Haematology, Owen Smith, and featured international experts who shared and compared experiences in relation to Burkitt’s Lymphoma. 

Following his graduation from Trinity College Dublin in 1933, Denis Burkitt made two major medical discoveries which won him world acclaim.  The first 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.  Along with two colleagues, Edward Williams and Clifford Nelson, Burkitt undertook a 16,000km research mission, visiting at least 56 hospitals in East and Southern Africa in 1961.  Their mission enabled them collect meticulous data in order to study the occurrence and distribution of lymphomas, leading to the discovery of the causes of the childhood cancer and the development of a cure for it.

Conference speakers with Mrs Olive Burkitt and daughters Judy Howard and Cas Boddam Whetham pictured in the centre of the first row.

Professor of Haematology at TCD and Consultant Paediatric Haematologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Professor Owen Smith said: “Denis Parsons Burkitt was one of the great physician scientists of the twentieth century who had a tremendous ability to turn simple clinical observation into major scientific discovery.  We are fortunate to have Burkitt as one of our graduates and it is fitting that we celebrate his life during this momentous year as TCD’s School of Medicine marks its tercentenary.”  The symposium was attended by Burkitt’s family and friends, including his wife, Olive Burkitt, and two daughters, Judy Howard and Cas Boddam Whetham.

Taking place over two days, the symposium was divided into two main streams.  The first day focused mainly on Burkitt as a man, physician scientist and his main legacy which was the discovery and early treatment strategies for the commonest cancer in sub-Saharan African children. The second day concentrated on recent developments relating to Burkitt’s Lymphoma in term of diagnostics, prognostic markers, risk-stratification methodologies and clinical trial outcomes.  The molecular pathobiology of Burkitt Lymphoma was also addressed by some of the world’s leading experts and clinical discussion between practicing physicians and researchers on unresolved issues followed.