University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Denis and Olive Burkitt

The Bower Award Ceremony

The Franklin Institute,

Philadelphia, January 1993

The paragraph to follow is a short tribute I paid to Denis Burkitt on introducing concepts of evolutionary medicine to the audience at the Franklin Institute for the Bower Award Conference honoring him:

We owe much to Denis Burkitt for his understanding about the evolutionary and cultural origins of the common diseases of Western civilization. A delightful colleague, he is also a rare observer, a clear formulator of profound questions, and a synthesizer of practical solutions. He is both eloquent and effective in proclaiming salubrious ideas and advising sound policy.

The formal Bower Award presentation included a filmed story of how Denis Burkitt led a safari by Land Rover through Central Africa to describe cases of a disease among youth that was later named Burkitt’s lymphoma. At that historic moment, C. Everett Koop, later U.S. Surgeon General Koop visited him in Africa in company with a consulting group of medical missionaries. Burkitt invited Koop to go along on a 10-week expedition to seek the distribution and causes of the strange malady. Koop told us at the Bower meeting that he regrets not making the trip, which, he believed, “would have been the highlight of his life.”

The film showed kids with lymphoid tumors of the jaw, boys with tumors of the testes, and girls with tumors of the ovaries. In it, Burkitt told the story of how they put it all together, the picture of Burkitt’s lymphoma, as a single, transmissible disease, sharply limited to specific altitudes in the Equatorial Belt of Africa. Later came the connection with the Epstein-Barr virus and the role of malaria and the immune system creating lymphomatous clones.

Stacy and I and the Burkitts had come together a few years back at the occasion of an honorary lecture I gave in Ottawa, where we hit it off immediately following my well-worn talk on “Heart Attacks. Evolution and Culture.” Many years earlier, on Denis’s one visit to Minnesota, I had heard his classic presentation on diet, fiber, and bowel disease. In it, he illustrates with dramatic color slides the diet effects of great amounts of fiber on the bulky stools of natives in the African bush compared to the “rabbit pellets” of his European missionary colleagues. It was a hilarious extrapolation of diet and lifestyle differences to prevalent symptoms and disease. But I learned much more about this remarkable man in dinner conversation with his wife, Olive, following the Bower Conference.

Olive Burkitt’s Story

She described to me her meeting with Denis when she was 19 and a volunteer nurse’s assistant in Plymouth during the heavy bombing of the war. That’s when Denis came along, an army surgeon, and they were soon married. He then went off to war for two-and-a-half years. As soon as he returned, he announced that he was once more going off to government service, now in Uganda. Pregnant, adamant not to be left home again, Olive arranged to join him in Africa.

Olive then told the story of how she and her eight-week-old baby, with a group of British colonial wives, followed their spouses and took an old tug through the Suez Canal to Mombassa. En route she was quartered in a stateroom with 11 other women and a dozen kids who apparently had every kind of “measly, poxy illness,” all coughing on her baby. Because she was nursing, she said, the baby came through just fine.

She described the marvelous train ride up to the central plateau from Mombassa to Nairobi, “a ride not to be missed in this life,” she insists. After years of living in cramped, dirty, cloudy England, she found herself climbing to the African plateau with its vast openness and light. There she became enthusiastic about the land and its wonderful fruits and fresh milk delivered every morning to her door in gourds. Her kitchen staff would go out at intervals and buy “a hunk of cow,” with which she soon learned to prepare acceptable British-African cuisine. Meanwhile, she recounted, Denis was “going crazy with work,” serving an area of thousands of square miles, performing all kinds of surgery and taking care of thousands of people.

When I repeated the cliché, “Behind every great man . . .” she replied, “But you know, Henry, the difference in my case is that I’m not just the woman behind him, I’m his leading light!” She didn’t elaborate but I believed her.

They lived their lives well, those two.

Sadly, only two months after the Bower Award Ceremony, Denis Burkitt died suddenly of a stroke, at age 83.

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