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Summary Article: Burkitt, Denis Parsons
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Northern Irish surgeon who first described the childhood tumour named after him, Burkitt's lymphoma, a malignant tumour of the lymph nodes. He also pioneered the trend towards high-fibre diets.

Lymphoma in Africa Burkitt was born in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and educated at Dublin and Edinburgh. He joined the Colonial Service in 1946 and worked for the Ministry of Health in Kampala, Uganda. It was in Kampala in 1957 that he realized that all the young children brought to him with facial tumours came from the same part of the country. Burkitt devoted himself to finding out where such cases occurred, and made a 15,000-km/9,300-mi safari with two other doctors. The resulting evidence pointed to a lymphoma belt across Africa. It existed only in the hot, wet parts of Africa where malaria was endemic. Infected children therefore already had weakened immune systems. Using material provided by Burkitt, virologist Tony Epstein identified the virus that caused Burkitt's lymphoma. The virus, which ordinarily led to glandular fever, made lymphoid cells malignant in young malaria patients. Surgery was little use, so Burkitt experimented with chemotherapy. Remarkably, a single course of treatment caused the lymphoma to go away.

Disease and diet Geography also played a role in Burkitt's second major discovery. Now working in London, he knew that few African patients suffered from appendicitis, haemorrhoids, gallstones, or other diseases prevalent in the West. He also knew that the food in rural Africa was high in fibre. He conducted a wide-ranging survey in rural areas of the developing world, and found that wherever sugar and white flour were eaten, the diseases of the West were found rampant. This led Burkitt to become convinced that a diet high in roughage prevents many ailments, and compelled scientists and the public to think differently about nutrition.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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