Denis Burkitt and the origins of the dietary fibre hypothesis

Nutr Res Rev. 2018 Jun;31(1):1-15. doi: 10.1017/S0954422417000117. Epub 2017 Jun 6.


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.

Keywords: MRC Medical Research Council; D. P. Burkitt; Dietary fibre:; G. D. Campbell; H. C. Trowell; N. S. Painter: A. R. P. Walker; Non-communicable diseases; T. L. Cleave.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Biochemistry / history
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / history*
  • Dental Caries / etiology*
  • Dental Caries / history
  • Diabetes Mellitus / etiology
  • Diabetes Mellitus / history*
  • Dietary Fiber / deficiency
  • Dietary Fiber / history*
  • General Surgery / history
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Diseases / etiology
  • Intestinal Diseases / history*
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / history*
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom


  • Dietary Fiber

Personal name as subject

  • Denis P Burkitt
  • Thomas L Peter Cleave
  • George D Campbell
  • Neil Stamford Painter
  • Alec R P Walker
  • Hubert Hugh Carey Trowell