Fermanagh’s global hero, Dr. Denis Parsons Burkitt, will be celebrated at a special event in Enniskillen on Saturday, June 25 where a plaque will be unveiled in honour of the late surgeon who made significant advances in health.

Dr. Burkitt was not only the first person to diagnose Burkitt’s lymphoma but he is also recognised as the first to make the link between fibre and healthy eating.

In connection with the release of a new biography entitled, ‘Denis Burkitt: A Cancer, the Virus, and the Prevention of Man-Made Diseases’, written by Professor John H. Cummings, the event will take place at the Cooper Crescent site of Enniskillen Royal Grammar School (ERGS), which will be attended by Dr. Burkitt’s daughters.

Starting at 11am, the event will feature presentations by special guests, the biographer Professor Cummings from the University of Dundee, and Professor Owen Smith of Trinity College Dublin.

At noon, the plaque will be unveiled at Dr. Burkitt’s former home at Alexandra Terrace, adjacent to Cooper Crescent, with a speech by Trinity College Dublin Provost Professor Linda Doyle.

The event is open to the public, but to gauge numbers, the host organisation, Fermanagh Genealogy Centre (FGC), is asking for those interested in attending to email fgcprojects@outlook.com.

The organisation is advising those who plan to attend, to park at the car park at Hollyhill Link Road, Enniskillen to avoid congestion.

The event is supported by The Fermanagh Trust, ERGS, FGC and the Old Portora Union.

Speaking to The Impartial Reporter this week, Dr. David McNulty, a representative of FGC, briefly outlined the life of Dr. Burkitt.

Born in Enniskillen

The son of James Parsons Burkitt, who was a founder member of the RSPB, Dr. Burkitt was born in Enniskillen in 1911 and lived with his family at Alexandra Terrace.

He went on to attend Portora Royal School but unfortunately, during his time at the school, he received a life-changing injury.

Dr. McNulty explained: “One of the boarders at Portora threw some gravel across at the other boys and Denis was just there. He was witnessing what was happening and unfortunately, some of the gravel got into his eye and he lost his sight in one eye.

“You would think that’d be a major setback, but it just seemed to spur him.”

Dr. Burkitt later went on to study engineering at Trinity College Dublin.

“At Trinity he became deeply immersed in Christianity and joined a Christian group there which really fired up his imagination,” said Dr. McNulty, adding: “What I really liked about him was that he practised what he preached.

“So for example, he didn’t approve of gambling. He didn’t approve of alcohol, he didn’t approve of wasting time, and he lived a life that he actually spoke about. That’s a lot to be said for him – he was a wonderful man.”

During World War II, Dr. Burkitt served with the Royal Army Medical Corp and after the war he continued to work in medical service. While in Africa during the 1950s, Dr. Burkitt had the idea of visiting 60 or 70 hospitals in Central Africa.

“When he went to each one, he gave them a cancer register. So what he asked hospital staff to do was, if someone came into the hospital with cancer, for them to note down the basic facts about them, where they lived, what age they were, what other diseases they had, and so on,” said Dr. McNulty, noting that this was the first time that somebody had the idea to record this information.

‘A goldmine’

“The data that they produced was a goldmine – for example, he discovered lymphoma, which is now called Burkitt’s lymphoma, and using the data from the cancer registers, he was able to say, people who had malaria are at great risk of getting Burkitt’s lymphoma,” he added, going on to explain that Professor Cummings’ book delves deeper into the late Dr. Burkitt’s life and work.

“The book by Professor Cummings is a real spellbinder.

“It really has done Dr. Denis Burkitt proud and I think it will reach a wide audience. The wonderful thing is he’s so topical, because people now are absolutely concerned about the amount of protein, the amount of fibre, the amount of sugar and the amount of fat [they consume], but Dennis was way ahead of everybody else on this subject.

“I really admire him,” Dr. McNulty told this newspaper.

Dr. Burkitt passed away in 1993, aged 82.