Denis Parsons Burkitt

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Denis Parsons Burkitt
Born 28 February 1911
Died 23 March 1993 (aged 82)
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Surgeon
Known for Burkitt's lymphoma, Cancer
Notable awards Charles S. Mott Prize (1982)
Buchanan Medal (1992)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]

Denis Parsons Burkitt FRS[1](28 February 1911 – 23 March 1993), surgeon, was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Ireland. He was the son of James Parsons Burkitt. 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's lymphoma[edit]

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

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 best-seller.

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.

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.[citation needed]

Publications by Burkitt[edit]

Academic journals


  • Burkitt, D. P.; Trowell, H. C. (1981). Western diseases, their emergence and prevention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-95020-8. 
  • Kellock B, Burkitt D. P. The Fibre Man: The Life-story of Dr. Denis Burkitt: Lion Pub.; 1985.


  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. 
  3. ^ McKinnell, Robert Gilmore (2006). The biological basis of cancer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60633-0.  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
  9. ^ Don't forget fibre in your diet: to help avoid many of our commonest diseases. Denis Burkitt. London: Martin Dunitz Ltd. 1979. ISBN 0-906348-07-2. 
  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. doi:10.1001/jama.294.22.2849. 

External links[edit]