Part 7: Diseases of Degeneration

“You’re only as old as your arteries.”
– Sir William Osler –
Diseases of Degeneration

When thinking of diseases of degeneration as a possible cause of disease do not be fooled into thinking that only elderly people suffer them. Also, evolutionists tell us we were built for a hunting and gathering lifestyle in the savannahs of Africa – not the modern life we live. Modern human lifestyles can encourage the body to degenerate more quickly and in all sorts of ways. The work of Sir Denis Burkitt serves as a classic example.

The Hunterian “Do not theorise, but try” attitude of mind is the important one to cultivate. The question came up one day, when discussing the grooves left on nails after fever, how long it took for the nail to grow out, from root to edge. A majority of the class had no further interest; a few looked it up in books; two marked their nails at the root with nitrate of silver, and a few months later had positive knowledge on the subject. They showed the proper spirit.
Sir Denis Burkitt was an English surgeon working for the army in Uganda. In this capacity, he was able to make astute observations on the diseases of the indigenous population. He noticed that “In Africa…, I hardly ever saw cases of many of the most common diseases in the United States and England”, such as diverticular disease and cancer of the large bowel.

Burkitt also noticed that, rather strangely, the natives living around the British areas did begin to develop such ‘Western’ diseases. Burkitt theorised that dietary differences must be a contributor, and so he started to experiment. After a period of detailed observation Burkitt concluded that the main difference was that Africans produced several times more faeces than British and Americans. “Moreover” he noted, “their faeces are soft and produced with negligible discomfort.”
Burkitt declared: “Western diets are so low on bulk and so dense in calories that our intestines just don’t pass enough volume to remain healthy.” He had discovered the importance of fibre. Burkitt shared his ideas widely, stating:
“America is a constipated nation…. If you pass small stools, you have to have large hospitals.”

“The frying pan you should give to your enemy. Food should not be prepared in fat. Our bodies are adapted to a stone age diet of roots and vegetables.”

“Western doctors are like poor plumbers. They treat a splashing tube by cleaning up the water. These plumbers are extremely adept at drying up the water, constantly inventing new, expensive, and refined methods of drying up water. Somebody should teach them how to close the tap.”Among other observations, Burkitt also realised that the indigenous Africans were not predisposed to cardiovascular disease. Another of his notes reads: “In 20 years of surgery in Africa, I had to remove exactly one gallstone.”

Diseases of degeneration can strike any organ. In modern society they are one of the biggest causes of death, particularly from atheromatous degeneration in the walls of our arteries.
Denis Parsons Burkitt (1911-1993). Denis Burkitt was born to a Protestant family and religion was an important factor in his life, even as a child: on his way to a Protestant school, a fight broke out with a group of Catholic boys, and Burkitt lost one of his eyes. Influenced by a medical missionary uncle, Burkitt became interested in medicine and eventually trained as a surgeon. He applied for a job in the British colonies, however was denied on the grounds that a one-eyed surgeon did not seem a very good idea.

Word War II gave Burkett the opportunity, however, and he quickly proved his cyclopic abilities, rapidly rising to the rank of major while working in Africa. His interest on the geographical distribution of disease led to crucial observations not only on the deficiencies of the Western diet, but on the lymphoma that conveys his eponymous fame. His works are regarded as classics in geographical pathology. It has been said it is impossible to grasp the number of lives that have been improved or saved as a result of Dr Burkitt’s epidemiological acumen