Colonial Knowledge - Public Health

Denis Parsons Burkitt (1911-93), Pioneer doctor and surgeon in East Africa.

Born in Enniskillen and educated at Portora Royal School, Burkitt studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1938. Serving in Africa and Ceylon during the war, he joined the Colonial Medical Service in Uganda in 1946 where he spent two years in bush hospital before obtaining a surgical appointment at Mulago Hospital in Kampala and lectureship at Makerere University College Medical School. While there he established a workshop which specialised in making plastic artificial limbs before turning his attention to cancerous tumours in 1957.

Focusing on the widespread incidence of cancer among African children, Burkitt undertook a ten thousand mile trek across equatorial Africa. His pioneering work on what became known as Burkitt’s Lymphoma and collaborations with M.A. Epstein and other researchers uncovered the role that virus’s played in human cancer. Specifically, they found that there was a causal link between the Epstein-Barr virus and lymphoma in children who were immune-suppressed due to chronic malaria. In addition to identifying the disease, Burkitt also pioneered chemotherapy as an effective treatment method and was honoured with appoints to the U.K. Medical Research Council and St. Thomas’ Hospital Medical School.

Continuing his research in the UK, Bukitt made a major breakthrough in the study of colon-rectal cancer, linking its incidence to a low-fibre diet. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to medical science, Burkitt was awarded numerous honorary degrees and awards including BMA Gold Medal and Fellowship of the Royal Society. In addition to his many honours and achievements, Burkitt remained a devout Christian throughout his life. He was active not only in the Christian Medical Fellowship, but wrote extensively on the impact of religion on medicine and how it influenced the direction of his own life’s work. Burkitt died as a result of stoke in 1993.


Sources: Ruan O’Donnell and Helen Andrews, ‘Burkitt, Denis Parsons’ in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009); Davis Coakley, ‘Denis Parsons Burkitt and his contribution to haematology/oncology’ in British Journal of Haematology, vol. 135, no. 1 (October 2006), pp 17-25