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Denis Burkitt and the origins of the dietary fibre hypothesis

  • John H. Cummings (a1) and Amanda Engineer (a2)


For more than 200 years the fibre in plant foods has been known by animal nutritionists to have significant effects on digestion. Its role in human nutrition began to be investigated towards the end of the 19th century. However, between 1966 and 1972, Denis Burkitt, a surgeon who had recently returned from Africa, brought together ideas from a range of disciplines together with observations from his own experience to propose a radical view of the role of fibre in human health. Burkitt came late to the fibre story but built on the work of three physicians (Peter Cleave, G. D. Campbell and Hugh Trowell), a surgeon (Neil Painter) and a biochemist (Alec Walker) to propose that diets low in fibre increase the risk of CHD, obesity, diabetes, dental caries, various vascular disorders and large bowel conditions such as cancer, appendicitis and diverticulosis. Simply grouping these diseases together as having a common cause was groundbreaking. Proposing fibre as the key stimulated much research but also controversy. Credit for the dietary fibre hypothesis is given largely to Burkitt who became known as the ‘Fibre Man’. This paper sets out the story of the development of the fibre hypothesis, and the contribution to it of these individuals.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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* Corresponding author: John H. Cummings, email


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Denis Burkitt and the origins of the dietary fibre hypothesis

  • John H. Cummings (a1) and Amanda Engineer (a2)


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