Members of the international committee that chose the 81-year-old Burkitt to receive the award said at a September meeting at which their decision was announced that his selection emphasizes the vital importance of research in Third World countries. It also demonstrates that ground-breaking science can be done inexpensively, they said.
Burkitt says the world of research has become too expensive and too fixated on achievement as measured by exam performance. Given that viewpoint, he acknowledges that the large cash prize associated with the award is a bit ironic and plans to give much of the money away. His work in Africa, which led to the discovery of the viral agent causing Burkitt's lymphoma, shows that good science does not require big money.
Just after World War II, Burkitt was posted by Great Britain's Colonial Service as physician in charge of health care for Uganda. Ten years into his tenure in Uganda, he began to take notice of curious lesions on children's mouths and faces. With a research grant of just $75, he set out, via mail-in questionnaires to African hospitals, to determine the geographic distribution of the lymphoma he was seeing.
In a follow-up safari, which cost about $1,000, he was able to map more precisely the lymphoma's occurrence. In the end, what he found was that the map of the lymphoma occurrence directly coincided with the map of endemic malaria. Malaria, it turned out, was suppressing the immune system, allowing a normally quiescent microbe, now dubbed the Epstein-Barr virus, to run rampant. It was the first link found between viruses and cancer, and it didn't require millions of dollars and lavishly equipped research facilities, says Burkitt.
Burkitt hardly considers distinctive intellectual qualities--such as having the very highest I.Q.--as indispensable to a successful career in science. "There's far too much emphasis on your I.Q., or how good you are at writing exam papers," he says. "When I went off to Trinity College, Dublin, I was considered a most unpromising student," says Burkitt. In fact, he says, his father received a letter from the school warning him that his 10-pound deposit was not refundable if the younger Burkitt flunked out of college, as was expected. But through active participation in the Student's Christian Union, Burkitt says, he gained a sense of purpose and, armed with that motivation, he moved up gradewise. "I wasn't a sort of bright guy, though, and I certainly didn't spend a lot of time at the laboratory bench," he says.
In 1966, Burkitt returned to Britain, where he found high incidences of major diseases like colon cancer and heart disease that were comparatively unknown in Africa. What he deduced was that Westerners were lacking adequate fiber in their diets, and he became one of the prime movers in the effort to reintroduce this necessary dietary element. After writing a book titled Eat Right (Positive Health Guides, 1979) he was dubbed the "Bran Man" by People magazine in 1980, according to a Franklin Institute spokeswoman.
Also selected to receive an award from the Franklin Institute in January was 92-year-old Arnold Beckman, the inventor of the electronically amplified pH meter and the spectrophotometer and founder of Beckman Instruments. The institute tapped Beckman to receive its Bower Award for Business Leadership, which does not carry a cash prize. Beckman was cited not only for his inventiveness but also for his philanthropic activities in promoting research and development.
Beckman, through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, has donated $170 million over the past decade to such institutions as the California Institute of Technology, the National Academy of Sciences, and Stanford University. "Just as his instruments catalyzed all sorts of advances in science, now he's making his philanthropy do the same thing," says Arnold Thackray, director of the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Bower awards were established in 1989 as part of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial Awards. They were made possible by a $7.5 million bequest from Henry Bower, a Philadelphia chemical manufacturer.