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Burkitt, Denis (Parsons)

virus cancer lymphoma malaria

(1911–93) British epidemiologist: discovered Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer caused by a virus.

Born and educated in Ulster, Burkitt entered Trinity College, Dublin to study engineering but changed to medicine and specialized in surgery. Working in Uganda in the 1950s, he discovered the type of cancer now known as Burkitt’s lymphoma. This presents as swellings of the jaw, usually in children of 6–8 years. Burkitt toured Africa to examine its incidence and found it mainly in areas where malaria is endemic, but no microorganism linked with it could be detected initially, so a virus was clearly a possibility. However, attempts made in London to establish tissue cultures of the cancer cells were unsuccessful until 1964. Then the cells were grown in culture and electron microscopy showed them to be infected with the Epstein–Barr virus. It seems likely that the lymphoma is caused by a conjunction of factors, including the virus (which is very common, worldwide) and exposure to malaria.

Burkitt was a proponent of high-fibre diets, partly because some bowel diseases common in developed countries are rare in Africa, where such diets are usual.

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