Denis Burkitt’s safari diaries

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By | From the Collections

Denis Parsons Burkitt (1911-1993), while posted at the Mulago Hospital and Makerere Medical School in Kampala, Uganda, in the 1950s and 1960s, was the first to describe a childhood cancer which became known as Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Denis Burkitt

Denis Burkitt Image Credit: Wellcome Images.  Wellcome Library reference: WTI/DPB/F/6:Box 31.

From the latter 1960s he began to compare patterns of disease in Africa and the West concluding that many Western diseases were a result of lack of fibre in the diet as well as lifestyle. Along with Surgeon Captain Peter Cleave  and Reverend Dr Hugh Trowell he popularised the benefits of a higher intake of dietary fibre and reduction in the consumption of refined processed foods as a way to avoid coronary heart disease, gall stones, haemorrhoids, diverticular disease, diabetes and varicose veins.

Bran Gang caricature

“The Remarkable Vision of Dr. T. L. Cleave and the “Bran Gang”” by Celia Haddon in the ‘Health Quarterly’, Sept-Oct 1981, originally in the ‘London Times’. Image Credit: Wellcome Images. Wellcome Library reference: PP/TLC/F.6/6:Box 14.

During the course of his career Denis was a consummate globe-trotter (the only Continents he didn’t visit were Antarctica and the Arctic!). As a result, in addition to copious material documenting his cancer and diet research, Burkitt’s archive at the Wellcome Library contains a series of journal-type accounts, known as “Safari diaries” covering 1956-1976.

The term ‘safari’ is particularly associated with the major lymphoma study trip Denis undertook in Africa with colleagues Edward Williams and Cliff Nelson in Oct-Dec 1961 known as “The Long Safari“, and is used in its original Arabic meaning, safara, to travel, not in the more modern sense of observing and hunting wild animals. (Burkitt did not entitle all of the 45 diaries ‘safari’ although many of them were thought of or referred to by him as safaris).

Ugandan children

Photograph of children at Mulago Hospital, Kampala in Uganda. Taken by Denis Burkitt in 1967.
Wellcome Library reference: WTI/DPB/B/1.

Often in the form of letters to family members or friends, these travel diaries constitute a valuable record of Burkitt’s medical and research work, extensive lecture tours and professional or religious visits (Denis was also a medical missionary). But more than this they provide a social and cultural commentary, global in its breadth. The accounts of the places he visits, people he meets, events that occur and local customs and politics are a mine of historical information whilst they simultaneously convey Burkitt’s character and provide a vivid flavour of times past.

Burkitt at the Medical Research Centre

Burkitt at the Medical Research Council. Image credit: Amanda Engineer. Wellcome Library reference: WTI/DPB/F/6:Box 31.

Denis moved back to England from Uganda in January 1966 to work for the Medical Research Council on Tottenham Court Road, London. However, by August 1966 he was already back in East Africa, part way through a trip taking in Kenya, Tanganyika, Tanzania, Malawi and Rhodesia, researching the epidemiology of his lymphoma and other cancers, visiting hospitals, government and medical officials, discussing cases, taking clinical photographs, learning of newly established cancer registries, lecturing, networking and socialising.


Types of tumour chart MHMS ph dept. Image credit: Amanda Engineer.

Some of his engagements were high profile and on 6th August he and his medical colleagues were granted 40 minutes with Malawi’s President, Dr Banda, at his private residence. According to Denis the President said:

“the Portuguese were the only people who had really known the early history of this part of Africa. He was full of praise for early Portuguese pioneers and explorers – an attitude which could not be imagined on the lips of other African leaders….He told us why he had adopted the cock as the symbol of his political party. The cock represented the call to wake up and get to work after sleep…”.

Some evening entertainments he attends seemingly out of duty: “Last night there was a concert of very heavy classical movement with songs in German. Rather beyond my capacity. I was tired and left in the interval to get early to bed”.

Dr Banda of Malawi and Jomo Kenyatta

Dr Banda of Malawi and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of this trip he was asked to escort to London a Tanzanian boy of 12 for a heart operation organised by Save the Children and funded by the Tanzanian government and private donations. Burkitt expressed admiration for the boy:

“We went to the aircraft before the other passengers. I had syringes, drugs and instructions on what to do in an emergency. So far no trouble. He devoured his breakfast and behaves as if he had been flying all his life. Some African children are so incredibly placid and undisturbed compared to Europeans. An English boy of 12 leaving his home and country to go alone to another part of the world for a dangerous operation would be terrified…” .

These are just a few snippets from an account that ranges over descriptions of Mount Kilimanjaro to an aside on female circumcision, which Burkitt comes across when visiting a tuberculosis hospital in Tanzania.

Frankly, meeting the President of Malawi was nothing extraordinary for a Burkitt trip. On the other hand, one momentous event where Denis was present stands out. In October 1962 Denis diligently recorded his involvement, (often accompanied by his wife Olive), in Uganda’s lavish independence celebrations and a royal tour by the visiting Duke and Duchess of Kent. Saturday 6 Oct 1962: “This is likely to be an eventful week. One doesn’t witness a country’s independence celebrations every day…” .

Indeed, the itinerary was bursting with activity – a huge athletic meeting, gun salutes, regattas, stadium events, multiple flights, parades, balls, garden parties, lunch receptions, dances and safaris. On Tuesday 9th he and Olive attend the “great Independence Tattoo” along with 50,000 spectators in a specially constructed stadium that included 500 people in the royal enclosure and a myriad of current and former dignitaries from Uganda and overseas. The climax was: “at midnight when the Union Jack came down and the new red, yellow and black Uganda flag flew in its place. This was followed by a magnificent firework display.”

Uganda flag

The Ugandan flag. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A new beginning is heralded but clearly the old paternalistic colonial attitudes flourish as he expresses disapproval of a colleague rejoicing that Ugandans are now free from tyranny and oppression:

“Was there ever a colony so justly and fairly governed and administered as Uganda? I wish he could have heard an African Padré preach in All Saints last Sunday of the folly of those who say ‘Why didn’t we leave the Africans alone’. He knew full well the oppression, cruelty, superstition, fear and disease which blighted the life of African people”.

The following day in the same stadium he witnesses Milton Obote take the official oath as Prime Minister followed by a service taken by both the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops and including a prayer in Swahili read by a “moslem” leader.

At the State Ball later that week Denis is clearly star-struck: “No end of dignitaries [including Jomo Kenyatta, future leader of independent Kenya]…the Duke, and the Duchesse dancing with the Prime Minister, who so relatively recently was looking after goats as a boy in a remote Lamgo Village on the shores of Lake Kiga”.

Mulago Hospital on 17 October is Denis’s big day:

“the climax really of years of work and planning. The Duchess opened our new Hospital. We had many important guests – the Kabaka, Omukama of Bunyoro, Prime Minister and many visiting dignitaries. The Anglican and Catholic Archbishops said prayers and the whole ceremony went off extremely well. A great tribute to those who had planned and worked for so long.”

So much from the archive cannot be featured in a short blog post, for instance, aviation history in Africa (Denis took a keen interest in every airplane he boarded), experiences of Apartheid during a visit to South Africa in 1962 (“insane colour legislation…”), the shock of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination during a research trip to the USA in November 1963, insights into life in Afghanistan in 1970, the list goes on….

Like many of the travel journals in the Wellcome Library Denis Burkitt’s “safari diaries” evoke a sense of being transported back in time, observing someone else’s life and sharing their experiences.

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