Dean Burk, Supporter of Laetrile, Dies
Dean Burk, a prize-winning biochemist at the National Cancer Institute who was rebuked by agency officials for his outspoken support of the controversial cancer treatment Laetrile, died at the home of his daughter in Washington. He was 84.
Burk, who succumbed Thursday to cancer, had been a staff member of the Bethesda, Md., institute for more than three decades. He headed the cytochemistry section, which deals with the chemistry of cells, and retired in 1974 to become president of his own foundation.
While at the institute, Burk called on federal health officials to give Laetrile a fair trial. The drug, while legally available in Mexico and some other countries, was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was considered quackery by many of Burk's fellow scientists.
Burk said in 1973 that he considered Laetrile "in front right now as a treatment for cancer" and he urged that it be tested on humans who gave their consent.
But rankled officials at the institute issued Burk an official reprimand, saying he had the right to exercise his freedom of speech as a private citizen, but he did not represent the government agency.
The institute said that it had tested Laetrile many times with mice and had not be able to establish that the drug had any beneficial effects on tumors.
"I love the National Cancer Institute and even helped to create it," Burk said, "but I don't like to see any public servant telling lies to the public. They did get some positive results, much to their surprise and disappointment."
Laetrile is the purified form of amygdalin, also called vitamin B-17, which occurs naturally in the pits of apricots and in some other foods. The chemical is composed of cynanide, which supporters said killed the cancer cells at the site of the tumor without damaging normal tissues.
In later years, Burk also cautioned lawmakers against the fluoridation of water, saying: "One-tenth of all the cancer deaths--one-tenth--can be correlated with the drinking of fluoridated water."
In 1952, Burk received a prize for his work on photosynthesis, the process by which plants make starch and sugar from air and water with the aid of sunlight, and in 1965 he was awarded a prize for developing procedures that distinguish normal and cancer-damaged cells.
He also was a co-developer of the prototype of the Magnetic Resonance Scanner, an imaging device frequently used instead of X-rays.
Burk was once asked how he managed to outlast many of his bureaucratic critics in Washington.
"If you will tell the utter, absolute truth, it is remarkable how most of your problems are solved. It simplifies life tremendously," he once said. "If you start telling half the truth or three-quarters of the truth, they'll get you."
Survivors include his wife, Mildred Chaundy Burk of Washington.
Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1988 |ROBERT WELKOS| Times Staff Writer
Dean Burk, 84, Chemist for Cancer Institute
WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 — Dean Burk, a retired chief chemist at the National Cancer Institute, died of cancer Thursday at the home of his daughter in Washington. He was 84.
Dr. Burk, was chief of cytochemistry at the institute's laboratory, where he had worked for more than 30 years before retiring in 1974. He received the Hildebrand Prize in 1952 for his work on photosynthesis, the process by which plants make starch and sugar from air and water with the aid of sunlight.
He won the Gerhard Domagk Prize in 1965 for his development of procedures for distinguishing the difference between a normal cell and one damaged by cancer.
Dr. Burk was the co-developer of the prototype of the nuclear magnetic resonance scanner, an imagining device frequently used instead of X-rays. He was also a co-discoverer of biotin, one of the B-complex vitamins.
Dr. Burk was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1904 and received a Bachelor of Science in 1923 and a Ph.D. in 1927 from the University of California. From 1927 to 1929, he was a National Research Fellow, studying at University College in London, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin and Harvard University.
He joined the staff of the Department of Agriculture's Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory in 1929 as an associate chemist and was promoted to chemist in 1937. He was appointed senior chemist at the institute in 1939.
From 1939 to 1941 he taught biochemistry at the Cornell University Medical College. He became principal biochemist at the Institute in 1948 and chief chemist in 1949.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Mildred Chaundy Burk of Washington; two daughters and a son.
New York Times, Obituaries, Published: October 10, 1988
Dean Burk was born in Oakland, California on March 21, 1904. His father, Frederic Burk, was president of what is now San Francisco State University. Dean entered the University of California at the age of 15 and received his doctorate in plant nutrition and chemistry at 23. He did post-doctoral work at Harvard University and then went to London to study with the Nobel laureate, A.V. Hill.
In Dean's day, Germany was the Mecca of science and the young American was strongly drawn towards, and soon welcomed into, the scientific circles of two of Germany's most famous biochemists, the Nobel laureates Otto Myerhof (1922) and Otto Warburg (1931). Returning to the United States, he joined the US Department of Agriculture as a chemist (Dagani 2004) and co-authored one of the most frequently cited papers in the history of biochemistry, "The Determination of Enzyme Dissociation Constants," published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1934. In 1937, Dean became a co-founder of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), and headed its Cytochemistry department for over three decades.
Otto Warburg was generally regarded as the greatest biochemist of the 20th century and Dean Burk was his foremost American disciple. Their friendship lasted 40 years. Warburg was an eccentric genius who also had many enemies. He propounded a theory of cancer that was initially greeted enthusiastically but was later widely ridiculed in academic circles. Basically, he claimed to have shown that cancer cells were anaerobic in nature, more akin to primitive bacteria than to normal mammalian cells. The implications of this were vast and pointed towards what we today would call "oxygenation therapies." Although Warburg's data were impeccable, other scientists later claimed to find exceptions to Warburg's rule. In time, Warburg's theory became not just old-fashioned but anathema to a scientific establishment that was increasingly focused on viruses and aberrant genes as the source of cancer. But, despite this, Dean Burk saw no reason to modify his own most cherished beliefs simply because they had gone out of fashion.
World politics also entered the equation. Otto Warburg's father was a scion of a famous German-Jewish banking dynasty. This fact alone would normally have marked Otto for death in Nazi Germany. Yet (to the increasing astonishment of the scientific world) he remained in Germany throughout the war, continuing to work as director of a scientific institute in Berlin. The reason he survived was that Adolf Hitler had had a polyp removed from his vocal cords and had a pathological fear of cancer. He thus ordered Warburg to be kept alive, since he thought that Warburg was on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer. In 1941, Warburg was fired from his post, but on Propaganda Minister Hermann Goering's orders, was reclassified as only one-quarter Jewish and allowed to continue his work as an "Honorary Aryan." As Otto Warburg's student and biographer, the Nobel laureate Hans Krebs, later wrote, "Warburg's willingness to...make a pact with the Nazis, incensed colleagues outside Germany."
One can contrast this with the fate of other Jewish scientists, such as Otto Myerhof, who fled Germany in 1938 because of anti-Semitic persecution. He, his wife and children narrowly escaped death in the Holocaust but lost all their possessions, including Meyerhof's beloved library. He died in exile in 1951 (States, n.d.).
Anger over Warburg's behavior seethed for decades. According to a recent history of German science, "…there was little sympathy for passive involvement with the government during the Nazi years. Anyone perceived as an active supporter faced severe ostracism by international colleagues, as well legal sanctions imposed from the occupational authorities. Often, German scientists were deemed guilty until proven innocent." (States, n.d.) There may have been special scorn for Warburg because of his denial of his Jewish roots.
Nevertheless, after the war, in 1949, Dean Burk brought his favorite mentor to the US and from 1950 until 1969; Burk spent most of his summers in Berlin, translating Warburg's works into English. Burk himself wrote more than 250 scientific articles, and won the American Chemical Society's Hillebrand Prize in 1953 and the Gerhard Domagk Prize in 1965 "for distinguishing the differences between a normal cell and one damaged by cancer."
This involvement with Warburg may have conveyed the impression to some that Dean Burk was pro-Nazi. His later association with several causes advocated by the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society may have reinforced that view. In fact, as his friends knew, Burk was a liberal Democrat who voted for George McGovern in 1972. However, he generally refused to answer questions about his political affiliations and enjoyed, in his cigar-chomping curmudgeonly way, watching strangers draw totally wrong inferences about his political views.
Dean Burk was a man of great integrity who also showed courage in the face of scorn and rejection. It was a rare honor to know him and to count him among my friends. I thoroughly agree with Prof. H.L. McKinney of the University of Kansas, who, in his obituary of Dean Burk, stated that Dean "lived a rich and valuable life….He probed abstruse mysteries; he proposed profound answers. He devoted his life to science and mankind. He made an indelible mark where he had passed. The world is infinitely richer having known such a gentle, brave man of genius, industry, and altruism."
--Ralph W. Moss, PhD
Walter Frear 1828 - 1922
Fannie Foster Frear 1836 - 1924
Henrietta Frear 1865 - 1958
Frederic Burk 1862 - 1924
Caroline Frear Burk 1871 - 1954
Norval F Burk 1905 - 1987
Dean Burk 1904 - 1988
Bois Burk 1906 - 1993
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