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ss nucleus - summer 1993,  Direction Determines Destination

Direction Determines Destination

Denis Burkitt is famous both for discovering the viral cause of 'Burkitt's Lymphoma' and for demonstrating the importance of dietary fibre. In this article he reflects on God's goodness and the lessons learnt.

A poor start

I hope the fact that I entered University as a most unpromising student may be an encouragement to others. My school career was decidedly undistinguished, and, having no real sense of vocation, I applied for admission to the engineering school at Trinity College, Dublin, my father having excelled in this career. I had definitely decided that whatever I studied it would not be medicine. I was timid and shy and lacking a sense of identity or direction.

After the death of my father I discovered among his papers a letter he had never shown to me. It had been written to him in 1929 by a friend who had been assigned to be my tutor. In it this Don had expressed his doubts as to whether I had it in me to obtain a University degree, and he warned my father that if I failed my exams half way through he would have lost the £10 he was having to deposit for my admission to Trinity College. This was a risk to consider seriously. My father had underlined the words he had written on top of the letter 'keep this', apparently feeling that his son might have been underestimated. I have another letter written to me precisely half a century later, in 1979, by the then Provost of the University. In it he informed me that I had been elected to receive 'The Honorary Fellowship of the College, which we regard as the highest award which it is in our power to bestow.' Would that my dear parents could have read this second letter.

Why the change in prospects?

One has to ask, using a medical term, what changed the prognosis made by the Don when he wrote to my father? It was during my first year that a senior student invited me to a meeting run by Christian students. I found these men friendly and possessing something very attractive, and it was through their influence that I made a halting commitment of my life to Jesus Christ. This gave me a sense of motivation, identity and direction.

In retrospect I view these events as the bursting through the ground of seeds sown in my home and at school, just as I believe that Paul's experience on the Damascus road was the breaking ground of the seeds sown at Stephen's martyrdom.

Recently, when invited to be a speaker at the medical symposium celebrating the quatercentenary of the College, the guest quarters in which my wife and I were accommodated were the very rooms in which, with my friends, we had met regularly for prayer some 60 years ago. With these nostalgic memories it seemed appropriate to address the large scientific audience autobiographically rather than academically.

It was not long before persistent prayer for guidance led me to the conviction that I was being called to be a doctor. Changing course was not easy, but it was a decision I have never regretted. As soon as I started my new career with boundless enthusiasm I began for the first time to find myself near the top of my class. My IQ, which I consider was never high, had not changed but my attitudes and confidence had.

Post-graduate training and marriage

Following graduation I continued surgical training and obtained the Fellowship of The Royal College of Surgeons. Still uncertain of my future course I spent five months as surgeon to a cargo-ship plying between Britain and Manchuria, hoping for guidance as regards my future. During further surgical training I felt strongly led to offer myself for service among less privileged people and volunteered for the Colonial Medical Service in West Africa. In my application I considered it right to mention my sense of vocation. This surprisingly seemed to scare them, and, using the pretext that I had lost an eye in an accident as a child, they rejected my offer without even an interview. This was a profound disappointment, but when I eventually reached Africa, God, in his mercy, enabled me with my one eye to see things which my predecessors had missed with two.

There is an important lesson to be learnt here. It was after this rejection that I was given the greatest blessing of my life in marrying my wife Olive. Moreover I was later to find that East and not West Africa was to be the sphere of my work. I have often thought of what my dear mother used to say to me as a boy, 'Disappointment His appointment, change one letter then I see.' As I now look back on many disappointing happenings I can see my mother was right.

I spent five years as a surgeon in the British army during World War Two during which time my wife and I were married on 48 hours leave. Within a few weeks I was posted overseas, and we were not to see each other again for two and a half years.

Africa and the Lymphoma

East Africa was one of my army postings, and somehow I felt that it was to there that I was being called. I applied again to the Colonial Medical Service and, having already served in Africa, they couldn't very well turn me down again for being monocular. For myself, I felt that I couldn't claim vocation yet stipulate conditions, so offered to do anything I was asked. Deciding to leave my parents and work overseas was a difficult decision to make, partly because I assumed it would imply abandoning my cherished surgical career, but more so because my wife hadn't felt the call to overseas service as I had. Consequently her's was a far greater sacrifice than mine. As it was to turn out, I was making no sacrifice at all, in fact quite the reverse. Years later an Australian missionary in Africa was to say to me; 'Denis, if you give anything to God in teaspoonfuls he returns it in shovelfuls'. So it was to be in my case.

When posted to a district hospital 275 miles by dirt roads from the nearest X-ray facility, and with only one locally qualified African doctor to help me, I was responsible for every aspect of medical care in a 100-bed hospital, and for the general medical oversight of a population of over 200,000. Once again I complained, feeling that as one of the only two qualified surgeons for a country with a population of six million I should have been posted initially to the central teaching hospital rather than spending my first eighteen months 'up country'. Subsequently I was to realise once again how my disappointment was indeed His appointment. The fact that I had myself stood in the shoes of a man in charge of a 'bush' hospital was of great advantage when I had the oversight of the surgery in all the country's district hospitals. Indeed, later in my career, when collecting data on disease distribution, mainly through personal visits to rural hospitals, it was an enormous asset that those whom I visited knew that I had shared their experience and that consequently I was better able to understand their problems.

Looking back over one's life, one realises the importance of decisions made at various junctures and the impact of meetings with individuals that at the time seemed trivial but subsequently turned out to be of momentous importance. For example, what at the time appeared to be a casual medical consultation was to lead, eventually, after years of investigation, to the identification and understanding of the form of cancer now know as Burkitt's lymphoma.

Fibre and Western diseases

It was another unplanned meeting a decade later that made me aware of the hitherto neglected value of fibre in nutrition, and of the highly significant concept of Western diseases. This opening of my eyes to the indisputable fact that a high proportion of disease in Western countries must be due to our life-style, and thus potentially preventable, was like a climber crossing a sky-line and suddenly seeing a whole new panorama of unexplored country before him. This revolutionised my concept of health priorities and unleashed previously unthought-of possibilities. I owe this opening of my eyes initially to a retired naval physician, 'Peter' Cleave, and subsequently to my many years of co-operation with a physician with thirty years of African experience, Hugh Trowell. These and others were the true pioneers in this field . I merely collected sufficient data from the Third World to persuade the profession to review their skepticism of the convictions held by these perceptive men.

Looking back I am conscious that, not only have I been given wonderful opportunities and enjoyed to an unusual degree the help and friendship of colleagues, but that the two major research projects to which 1 was privileged to contribute, became catalysts stimulating an enormous volume of research endeavour by other, more competent workers. I have been privileged to pick up and examine two initially unpromising looking stones, both of which on polishing turned out to be golden nuggets. Any work that becomes a catalyst has more far-reaching results than has far more brilliant endeavour that remains an isolated discovery.

One of the lessons I have learnt in my life is that direction, rather than ability, determines destination. The emphasis today tends to be on IQ and the facility to answer exam papers, both of which are of course valuable. When asked to write something in medical text-books or autograph an album, I have written this:

Attitudes are more important than abilities.
Motives are more important than methods.
Character is more important than cleverness.
And the heart takes precedence over the head.'

I am very conscious that I have been a grateful receiver rather than an achiever, and prominently displayed on my study wall are the words of the apostle Paul: 'What do you possess that was not given to you? If then you really received it all as a gift, why take the credit to yourself?' (1 Cor4:7)

In closing I must emphasise that my experience is in no way typical. I merely want to express my gratitude for the way things have turned out for me . For the majority , endeavouring to follow the way of Christ certainly does not imply material success or job fulfilment; often quite the reverse.

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