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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory