Denis Parsons Burkitt

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Denis Parsons Burkitt
Born28 February 1911
Enniskillen, Ireland
Died23 March 1993 (aged 82)
Gloucester, England
Known forBurkitt's lymphoma, Cancer
AwardsPaul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize (1972)
Charles S. Mott Prize (1982)
Buchanan Medal (1992)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career

Denis Parsons Burkitt, MD, FRCS(Ed), FRS[1] (28 February 1911 – 23 March 1993) was an Irish surgeon who made significant advances in health, such as the aetiology of a pediatric cancer, now called Burkitt's lymphoma, and the finding that rates of colorectal cancer are higher in those who eat limited dietary fibre.

Life and death[edit]

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 and graduated in 1935. In 1938 he passed the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 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. In 1979, he became an honorary fellow of Trinity College Dublin.[3] He received the Bower Award and Prize in 1992. He died of a stroke on 23 March 1993 in Gloucester and was buried in Bisley, Gloucestershire, England.[4]

Scientific contributions[edit]

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

Burkitt's lymphoma[edit]

The first was the description, distribution, and ultimately, the aetiology of a pediatric cancer that bears his name, Burkitt's lymphoma.[5]

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 tumours."[6] "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"[7] 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.[8] Burkitt published A sarcoma involving the jaws of African children.[9] The newly identified cancer became known as "Burkitt's lymphoma". He went on to map the geographical distribution of the tumour. Burkitt, together with Dennis Wright,[10] published a book titled Burkitt's Lymphoma in April 1970.[11]

Dietary fibre[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,[12] which became an international bestseller.

Burkitt suggested that higher fibre intake can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. This was based on observations of the difference in patterns of diseases between Western and traditional African societies. Burkitt noted the lower rates of colorectal cancer in African countries compared to the West. He also found that African diets were generally higher in dietary fibre.[13]

Recent research has found that "consuming 10 g more total dietary fibre a day is associated with an average 10% reduction in risk of colorectal cancer"[14] and a diet high in dietary fibre is also advised as a precaution against other diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.[15]

Publications by Burkitt[edit]

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.



  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. PMID 11615366. S2CID 24411537.
  2. ^ "Burkitt, Denis Parsons". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/57333. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Webb, D.A. (1992). J.R., Barlett (ed.). Trinity College Dublin Record Volume 1991. Dublin: Trinity College Dublin Press. ISBN 1-871408-07-5.
  4. ^ "Dr. Denis Burkitt Is Dead at 82; Thesis Changed Diets of Millions". The New York Times. 16 April 1993. Retrieved 4 January 2023.
  5. ^ McKinnell, Robert Gilmore; Parchment, Ralph E.; Perantoni, Alan O.; Damjanov, Ivan; Pierce, G. Barry (2006). The biological basis of cancer (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-521-84458-1. OCLC 537382803.
  6. ^ Denis P. Burkitt, "Discovering Burkitt's Lymphoma" in Paul H. Levine, Epstein-Barr Virus and Human Disease (Humana Press 1987) p. xxi
  7. ^ M. Anthony Epstein, "The Origins of EBV Research" in Erle S. Robertson, Epstein-Barr Virus (2005) p. 2 ISBN 978-1904455035
  8. ^ Epstein, "Origins" p. 2
  9. ^ 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. S2CID 46452308.
  10. ^ Biography Dennis Wright Archived 26 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Burkitt, D. P; Wright, Dennis H (1970). Burkitt's lymphoma. Livingstone. ISBN 978-0-443-00700-2. OCLC 125974.[page needed]
  12. ^ Burkitt, Denis (1979). Don't forget fibre in your diet: to help avoid many of our commonest diseases. London: Martin Dunitz Ltd. ISBN 978-0-906348-07-9. OCLC 12583461.
  13. ^ Lewin, M. R. (January 1991). "Is There a Fibre-Depleted Aetiology for Colorectal Cancer? Experimental Evidence". Reviews on Environmental Health. 9 (1): 17–30. doi:10.1515/reveh.1991.9.1.17. PMID 1659729. S2CID 25147372.
  14. ^ Key TJ, Bradbury KE, Perez-Cornago A, Sinha R, Tsilidis KK, Tsugane S. (2020). "Diet, nutrition, and cancer risk: what do we know and what is the way forward?". BMJ. 368: m996. doi:10.1136/bmj.m511. PMC 7190379. PMID 32139373.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ 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 Fibre 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.
  16. ^ Wiltshaw, E. (1971). "Book Review: Burkitt's Lymphoma". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 64: 99. doi:10.1177/003591577106400161. S2CID 199613613.

Further reading[edit]

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