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Burkitt, Denis Parsons (1911-1993)

  • Denis Parsons Burkitt CMG, FRS, FRCS, MD (1911-1993), surgeon and medical researcher in tropical Africa
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


The collection presented by Denis Burkitt in 1988 chiefly consists of material generated through his work at Mulago Hospital and Makerere Medical School, Kampala, Uganda 1948-1964, notably clinical photographs, transparencies and x-rays of a variety of conditions, diseases and deformities; notes re congenital deformities; material relating to his research into Burkitt's lymphoma; diary of his journey mapping the geographical distribution of Burkitt's lymphoma, "Long Safari" Oct-Dec 1961; patient case cards and notes on various conditions; albums containing maps and diagrams, etc., of Africa indicating the distribution of lymphoma and other tropical diseases; writings, articles and other publications by Burkitt; papers relating to his research into the role of diet in the aetiology of Western diseases.

The material presented in 1995 comprises further 'Safari Diaries', including the 1961 journal, plus accounts and reports of safaris, tours and visits to numerous other countries around the world up to 1979; correspondence with Peter Cleave 1968-1975; correspondence, etc., with millers regarding the refining of flour 1972; further material on the geographical pattern of cancer in tropical Africa, 1960s-1970s; additional photographs of Burkitt's lymphoma; typescript autobiography; typescript biography of E. H. Williams; reprints of Burkitt's published papers; material relating to Burkitt's MRC project on dietary fibre including peptic ulcer questionnaires filled in by hospitals 1974-1975 and file cards, synthesis and analysis of information including published papers (the survey covered countries in Africa and Asia).

There is also a large volume of slides, drawings and artwork (WTI/DPB/C/8) Denis Burkitt used for lectures on diet and disease or which were used in related publications. As this material is currently in an unsorted condition requests for access must be made in writing to Archives and Manuscripts.



Physical description

31 boxes, 24 oversize items, 5 uncatalogued boxes


The collection is arranged as follows:

Section A: Mulago Hospital and Makerere Medical School, Kampala, Uganda, c.1937-1975

Section B: Research into Cancers in Africa, Notably Burkitt's Lymphoma, 1950s-1975

Section C: Research into the Role of Diet in the Aetiology of Western Diseases, 1968-1985

Section D: Travel 'Safaris' and Journals and Trip Itineraries of Denis Burkitt, 1956-1979

Section E: Writings by Denis Burkitt, 1938-1992

Section F: Personal, Biographical and Autobiographical Material of Denis Burkitt, 1922-1993

Acquisition note

The initial accession was given to the Wellcome Tropical Institute in Feburary 1988 by Denis P. Burkitt. The Wellcome Tropical Institute's collections were subsequently incorporated into the the Wellcome Library's holdings. Accession 573 was given to the Wellcome Library by Olive Burkitt in July 1995. Accession 576 was given to the Wellcome Library by Frank I Tovey (via the Science Museum) also in July 1995. Additional slides and illustrations were donated by Olive Burkitt in July 2013 (Acc 1998).

Biographical note

Denis Parsons Burkitt was born in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, in 1911. He was educated at Dean Close, Cheltenham, and Trinity College, Dublin, graduating MB, BCh and BAO Dublin in 1935, later becoming FRCS (Ed) and MD, Dublin. After house and surgical appointments positions in various hospitals in Ireland and England he joined the RAMC in 1941 reaching the rank of major, full specialist. After demobilisation he joined the Colonial Service in Uganda first as a government surgeon in Lira and then at Mulago Hospital, Kampala (1948-1964). He became lecturer in surgery at Makerere University College and ultimately senior surgeon to the Ugandan ministry of health. In 1964 he joined the staff of the Medical Research Council in Uganda where he remained until 1966 and then in London until 1976. After retiring from the MRC he became honorary research fellow at St Thomas' Hospital Medical School. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1972 and awarded a CMG in 1974.

Burkitt made two major contributions to medical science related to his experiences in Africa. He was the first to describe, document and study the etiology of a specific form of cancer he had observed in children. In 1958 he published "A Sarcoma involving the jaws of African children" (The British Journal of Surgery Vol 46, 197) detailing the condition which became known as Burkitt's lymphoma. He went on to map the epidemiology geographical distribution and published of the tumour and in April 1970 published, together with Dr Dennis Wright, the book Burkitt's Lymphoma. Burkitt's second major contribution was in the field diet, nutrition and health. Upon his return to England he compared the patterns of disease in Africa and the West and concluded that many Western diseases were a result of lack of fibre in the diet as well as lifestyle. Although some of his conclusions (e.g. regarding colon cancer) are now generally considered incorrect, however a diet high in dietary fibre is an accepted precautionary to diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Along with Surgeon Captain Peter Cleave, a retired naval surgeon, and Hugh Trowell, he promoted in numerous articles and publications the benefits of a higher intake of fibre and reduction in the consumption of refined processed foods as a way to avoid common diseases in the developed world such as coronary heart disease, gall stones, haemorrhoids, diverticular disease, diabetes and varicose veins. His book Don't Forget to Put Fibre in Your Diet was published in 1979.

Denis Burkitt was a committed Christian, one time President of the Christian Medical Fellowship (UK) and wrote frequently on religious themes.

Related material

Additional papers of Denis Burkitt are held by Trinity College, Dublin.

Terms of use

This collection has been catalogued and is available to library members. Some items have access restrictions which are explained in the item-level catalogue records.

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