Obituary: Denis Burkitt

Denis Parsons Burkitt, surgeon and research scientist: born Enniskillen 28 February 1911; Surgeon, Royal Army Medical Corps 1941-46; Government Surgeon, Uganda 1946-64; Medical Research Council External Scientific Staff 1964- 76; FRS 1972; CMG 1974; Honorary Senior Research Fellow, St Thomas's Hospital Medical School 1976-84; married 1943 Olive Rogers (three daughters); died 23 March 1993.

DENIS BURKITT is a household name in the medical profession. He had two claims to fame - as the discoverer of the first cancer to be caused by a virus and as the man who forced the world to take dietary fibre seriously. These achievements are made more extraordinary by the fact that he had no training in scientific research, in nutrition or in communication. He was the archetype of the unselfconscious, gifted amateur.

His great gifts were intellectual curiosity, enormous energy, perseverance and the ability to see the connections between things. All this was harnessed to an old-fashioned but very real desire to ease the sufferings of humanity, based on a deep Christian faith. His faith really was his mainspring. It kept him humble to a fault, even when he had received the highest scientific honours in Britain (FRS, 1972), France (member of the Academie de Sciences, 1990), the US (Bower Prize, 1993), and his own native Ireland (honorary fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, where he had his medical training, 1979), plus a string of medals, prizes and honorary degrees. He did not pretend to be a scholar or scientist and, when asked for his autograph, would write, 'Attitudes are more important than abilities, motives than methods and character than cleverness; and the heart takes precedence over the head.'

The common thread in Burkitt's scientific work was a fascination with geography. His father - James Burkitt, a surveyor in County Fermanagh and a naturalist - was the first person to use the ringing of birds to map out their territories and movements. His son's great discovery was a five- million-square-mile band across equatorial Africa in which occurred a strange cancer of children, now known universally as Burkitt's lymphoma.

As a government surgeon in Kampala in the post-war years he had been intrigued and, doubtless, horrified by the occasional child - typically a five-year-old boy - brought to him with a rapidly growing tumour of the face. Reviewing the hospital records of such cases, he noticed that all the children came from the north and east of Uganda. He decided to find out exactly where the disease did and did not occur in Africa, in the hope that it would point to a possible cause. To this end he sent pictures of his patients to hundreds of hospitals around Africa asking if they ever had similar cases. The answers pointed to a lymphoma belt. Excited, Burkitt published his findings in 1958 with gruesome photographs and a masterly account of 38 cases. The paper fell flat. Undaunted, he gathered more data and published again, in 1961. Now people took notice. He was invited to lecture in London and in the audience was a virologist named Tony Epstein. Epstein was researching possible links between viruses and cancer and, as he listened, he wondered if the geography of Burkitt's lymphoma meant that it was caused by a virus. So it proved. Burkitt sent frozen specimens from tumours to London, Epstein looked at them down his electron microscope and there indeed was evidence of a virus.

This discovery galvanised the world of cancer research. It took several more years and a 10,000-mile safari to explain the geography of Burkitt's lymphoma. Eventually it was realised that it occurs in the hot, wet parts of Africa where mosquitoes thrive and where, as a consequence, many children have chronic malaria. In some children this leads to suppression of the body's defences, the immune response. This lack of defences allows a virus, now called Epstein-Barr virus and recognised as causing glandular fever in normally immune people, to provoke lymphoid cells into turning malignant.

Knowing that his surgical skills availed little with this highly malignant tumour Burkitt made a bold experiment and tried chemotherapy. To his amazement the tumours melted away with just a single course of cytotoxic drugs. To find both the cause and cure for cancer was melodramatic stuff and Burkitt became a hero.

By 1964 ordinary clinical work had lost its appeal and Burkitt dropped his scalpel in favour of full-time research, first in Uganda then in the offices of the Medical Research Council in London. Almost at once he hit gold again. It had an unlikely source. An eccentric but highly original naval physician, TL Cleave, published a book in 1966 blaming many diseases of modern civilisation on the modern habit of eating carbohydrate (sugars and starches) in refined form, stripped of their bulky, chewy coverings. Cleave emphasised the dangers of refined products, chiefly sugar and white flour. Burkitt saw the logic of the hypothesis but, turning it round, found himself looking at the positive virtues of the matter removed in producing refined foods, especially the bran which is removed in flour- milling. He knew that, in rural Africa, food was eaten in unprocessed or lightly milled form and reasoned that the higher fibre-content of such food could explain why, in his surgical practice in Uganda, he had seldom seen diseases like gall-stones, appendicitis, varicose veins and haemorrhoids.

It was time to make some new maps, but this time on a worldwide scale. Burkitt sent out questionnaires to hundreds of hospitals in rural areas of the Third World and proved Cleave right in most respects. Where sugar and white flour were rare, so were the diseases of Western civilisation. This led to several classic papers and endless lecture tours emphasising the virtues of fibre. We now know the links are much more complex than that, but Burkitt's vivid advocacy of the fibre hypothesis, together with his great prestige, forced scientists and especially nutritionists to think in a new way. The sciences of nutrition, gastroenterology and epidemiology were revolutionised.

Burkitt's lectures were always packed. His slides were telling, his one-liners memorable. Purists were offended by his simple approach, his sweeping statements. But he was a pioneer and, like Columbus, he could not always know exactly where he was.

Denis Burkitt left a widow, Olive, and three daughters, two of whom are married to doctors. For them and his friends a light has gone out of their lives. For the world, his legacy is a richer science of medicine and a better way of eating.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice