Denis Parsons Burkitt
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Denis Parsons Burkitt

Denis Parsons Burkitt
Born28 February 1911
Died23 March 1993 (aged 82)
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Known forBurkitt's lymphoma, Cancer
AwardsCharles S. Mott Prize (1982)
Buchanan Medal (1992)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career

Denis Parsons Burkitt FRS[1] (28 February 1911 - 23 March 1993) was a surgeon who made significant advances in health, such as the etiology of a pediatric cancer, now called Burkitt's lymphoma, and the finding that the rates of colorectal cancer is higher in those who eat limited dietary fiber.

Life and death

Burkitt was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Ireland. He was the son of James Parsons Burkitt, a civil engineer. Aged eleven he lost his right eye in an accident. He attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and Dean Close School, England. In 1929 Burkitt entered Trinity College, Dublin, to study engineering, but believing his evangelical calling was to be a doctor, he transferred to medicine. In 1938 he passed the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons fellowship examinations. On 28 July 1943 he married Olive Rogers.[2]

During World War II, Burkitt served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in England and later in Kenya and Somaliland. After the war, Burkitt decided his future lay in medical service in the developing world and he moved to Uganda. He eventually settled in Kampala and remained there until 1964.

Burkitt was president of the Christian Medical Fellowship and wrote frequently on religious/medical themes. He received the Bower Award and Prize in 1992. He died on 23 March 1993 in Gloucester and was buried in Bisley, Gloucestershire, England.[]

Scientific contributions

Burkitt made two major contributions to medical science related to his experience in Africa.

Burkitt's lymphoma

The first was the description, distribution, and ultimately, the etiology of a pediatric cancer that bears his name, Burkitt's lymphoma.[3]

Burkitt in 1957 observed a child with swellings in the angles of the jaw. "About two weeks later ... I looked out the window and saw another child with a swollen face ... and began to investigate these jaw tumors."[4] "Having an intensely enquiring mind, Burkitt took the details of these cases to the records department ... which showed that jaw tumours were common, [and] were often associated with other tumours at unusual sites"[5] in children in Uganda. He kept copious notes and concluded that these apparently different childhood cancers were all manifestations of a single type of malignancy.[6] Burkitt published A sarcoma involving the jaws of African children.[7] The newly identified cancer became known as "Burkitt's lymphoma". He went on to map the geographical distribution of the tumour. Burkitt, together with Dr. Dennis Wright,[8] published a book titled Burkitt's Lymphoma in April 1970.

Dietary fiber

His second major contribution came when, on his return to Britain, Burkitt compared the pattern of diseases in African hospitals with Western diseases. He concluded that many Western diseases which were rare in Africa were the result of diet and lifestyle. He wrote a book Don't Forget Fibre in your Diet,[9] which was an international bestseller.

Although one study showed that people who eat very low levels of fiber -- less than 10 grams per day -- had an 18 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer, the more general idea that colon cancer is a fiber deficiency disease is now considered incorrect by some cancer researchers.[10] Nevertheless, research suggests that a diet high in dietary fiber is advised as a precaution against other diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.[11] He had an alternative theory, published in numerous articles and books, that the use of the natural squatting position for defecation protects the natives of Africa and Asia from gastrointestinal diseases.

Publications by Burkitt

Academic journals

  • Burkitt, D. P. (1972). "Varicose Veins, Deep Vein Thrombosis, and Haemorrhoids: Epidemiology and Suggested Aetiology". British Medical Journal. 2 (5813): 556-561. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.5813.556. PMC 1788140. PMID 5032782.
  • Burkitt, D. P. (1973). "Some diseases characteristic of modern Western civilization". British Medical Journal. 1 (5848): 274-278. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.5848.274. PMC 1588096. PMID 4568142.
  • Burkitt, D. P. (1981). "Hiatus hernia: Is it preventable?". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 34 (3): 428-431. doi:10.1093/ajcn/34.3.428. PMID 6259926.


See also (over 39 minutes of Dr Burkitt speaking)


  1. ^ a b Epstein, A.; Eastwood, M. A. (1995). "Denis Parsons Burkitt. 28 February 1911 - 23 March 1993". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 41: 88-102. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1995.0006.
  2. ^ "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/57333. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ McKinnell, Robert Gilmore (2006). The biological basis of cancer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-60633-2. p. 257
  4. ^ Denis P. Burkitt, "Discovering Burkitt's Lymphoma" in Paul H. Levine, Epstein-Barr Virus and Human Disease (Humana Press 1987) p. xxi
  5. ^ M. Anthony Epstein, "The Origins of EBV Research" in Erle S. Robertson, Epstein-Barr Virus (2005) p. 2
  6. ^ Epstein, "Origins" p. 2
  7. ^ Burkitt, D. (1958). "A sarcoma involving the jaws in African children". The British Journal of Surgery. 46 (197): 218-223. doi:10.1002/bjs.18004619704. PMID 13628987.
  8. ^ Biography Dennis Wright Archived 26 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Don't forget fibre in your diet: to help avoid many of our commonest diseases. Denis Burkitt. London: Martin Dunitz Ltd. 1979. ISBN 978-0-906348-07-9.
  10. ^ Kowalczyk, Liz (14 December 2005). "Doubts cast on fiber's effect on cancer". The Boston Globe.
  11. ^ Park, Y.; Hunter, D. J.; Spiegelman, D.; Bergkvist, L.; Berrino, F.; Van Den Brandt, P. A.; Buring, J. E.; Colditz, G. A.; Freudenheim, J. L. (2005). "Dietary Fiber Intake and Risk of Colorectal Cancer: A Pooled Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 294 (22): 2849-57. doi:10.1001/jama.294.22.2849. PMID 16352792.

Further reading

External links

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