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Dr. Dean Burk -- Historical link to honest cancer research


THE MOSS REPORTS [Newsletter 03/14/2004]


In the thirty years that I have worked in the field of cancer I have been privileged to encounter many exceptional people, and this week I celebrate the life of one of them: Dr. Dean Burk, an early mentor of mine and a genuinely original thinker.  


As I look back over the career of Dr. Burk it occurs to me that while much has changed in the field of cancer since his heyday, much, sadly, remains the same.  The war on cancer grinds on with depressingly little to show for the massive investment that we have made in trying to fight the disease.  Meanwhile the basic philosophy of our approach to cancer has remained largely unchanged. Chemotherapy and radiation continue to be the mainstay of treatment, and few in the field are willing to acknowledge the fact that despite the increasing complexity of the chemical arsenal now available to oncologists, the death rate for many of the most common cancers has not fallen commensurately.  


Meanwhile, knowledge remains perhaps the most powerful weapon of all.  At the Moss Reports we continue to offer cancer patients and their families the information they need in order to make knowledgeable, informed treatment choices.   We have individual Moss Reports on over two hundred different kinds of cancer, each one of which offers a panoramic overview of the available treatments, both conventional and alternative.   We also offer research services to assist our clients in arriving at sound treatment decisions, and I am available for phone consultations. 

You can order a report, or schedule a phone consultation, by calling us at 1-800-980-1234 (814-238-3367 when calling from outside the US).

You can also order reports through our website, http://www.cancerdecisions.com



This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Dean Burk. It is a centenary that is not likely to be noted in many places around the globe. In an ideal world, this anniversary would be marked with a Festschrift, a volume of learned articles by colleagues and admirers, which could serve as a tribute to one of America's most celebrated biochemists. In the absence of such a formal gesture, perhaps this short essay can serve as a fitting memorial.


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.


To view a photo of Dr. Dean Burk, click or go to: http://www.cancerdecisions.com/images/dean1.gif


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.


I got to know Dean Burk in 1977 after I was fired from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for exposing positive results in animal experiments with laetrile. Thereafter, we both were asked to testify before various state legislatures on the question of laetrile. We took three or four such trips together. Traveling with Dean Burk was always an adventure. He insisted on being the last person to board any plane. He would accordingly linger in the airport lounge, sitting placidly through a series of increasingly urgent boarding announcements, seemingly oblivious, until the gate was about to close. Then he would suddenly jump up and make a mad dash - with me in tow!


For a government scientist he had an unusual appetite for heated controversy. Towards the end of his life he got involved in two such controversies, amygdalin and fluoridation. His Dean Burk Foundation issued a report on amygdalin, also known as laetrile or vitamin B-17, that was ardently positive. His opinion that laetrile was also a B vitamin carried some weight since in the 1930s he himself had co-discovered one of the B vitamins, biotin. Burk analyzed the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and concluded that amygdalin should "scientifically…be regarded as a vitamin." Unfortunately, he added, "irresponsible human nature appeared certain to reject such an axiom in the same way the flat earth advocates reject the view of a round earth."


Online one can find a report by Dr. Carl G. Baker, director of the National Cancer Institute from 1969-1972, of an interrogation he conducted of Dr. Burk in 1969. This fascinating six-page document, although framed in classic Bureaucratese, captures some of the consternation that Dean Burk engendered in his scientific colleagues.


He and I sometimes differed on basic issues, such as the likely fate of the laetrile movement. I tended to be doubtful about its long-term prospects while he tended, I thought, towards undue optimism. I remember a conversation we had as we were flying to testify at the Michigan statehouse in Ann Arbor. The previous spring (1977), US District Judge Luther Bohanon, of the Western District of Oklahoma, had issued a historic decision permitting the importation of laetrile for the treatment of terminally ill cancer patients through a physician's affidavit system. Dean was ecstatic and insisted that within a year or two laetrile would be accepted throughout the land.


Fresh from my bruising experience at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, I was dubious and felt that the establishment would find a way to neutralize and defeat this latest challenge. Dean chided me for my pessimism. Yet he lived long enough to see Judge Bohanon's decision reversed by the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in December, 1986. On March 24, 1987, Judge Bohanon himself issued an order ending the physician's affidavit system. Nowadays, of course, laetrile is not recognized as anything but a pain in the neck by people in authority.



Dean's other passion was the anti-fluoridation crusade. He was initially skeptical that there was any link between fluoridation and cancer but later came to believe ardently that fluoride was a major carcinogen, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths per year. With his NCI credentials, he was the most impressive witness the anti-fluoridation forces around the world had. Needless to say, this role did not endear him to the public health establishment, which fought for its right to medicate the entire public with fluoride in the public drinking water in the name of preventing tooth decay among children.


"We urge the governments of civilized countries of the world to bring about a prompt end to artificial fluoridation of public water supplies," he once wrote. He strongly believed that if the policy of fluoridation were reversed it would prevent tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. One of Dean's most personally fulfilling moments came when he received the news that he himself was largely responsible for the termination of fluoridation in the Netherlands. He had a similar impact in Australia. And so the authorities in other count

ries were on the lookout when Dean Burk arrived on their shores.


The Wembley Meeting

In the spring of 1980, Dean and I were among four leaders of alternative medicine invited to present papers at the Fourth International Symposium on Prevention and Detection of Cancer, a large scientific conference in Wembley, England. Linus Pauling, PhD, and Joseph Gold, MD (developer of hydrazine sulfate) were the other two. We had a wonderful time together. Then, one afternoon of the conference, we all went to hear Dean's presentation on fluoride.


For a picture of Joseph Gold (l.), Dean Burk (c.) and me (r.) at the Wembley conference, click or go to: http://www.cancerdecisions.com/images/burk1.jpg


The chairman of this session was a German who controlled the discussion in an old-fashioned Prussian way. Dean gave a reasonable scientific presentation on fluoridation but was followed by a string of other speakers who attacked him. That they would differ with him professionally was not unexpected. But the attacks became increasingly tendentious and even personal. Standing on the side of the crowded conference room, Dean eventually tried to respond but the chairman sternly ruled him out of order and continued to call on his attackers. At that moment Dean seemed old and frail.


Unable to stand this injustice any longer I cried out, "Let him speak!" The German moderator snarled at me in his heavy-accented English, "Are you the Chairman?" We locked eyes and a hush fell over the room. Looking into his cold blue stare I myself suddenly felt powerless to stop this persecution of my friend. I managed to answer back, "No, but I am a human being. And I say let the man speak."  It wasn't brilliant rhetoric but, to my amazement, the chairman blinked first and relented. Dean was then able to answer his critics and restore his honor as a person and scientist.


In the thirty years that I have been involved in this contentious field I have seen my share of ugliness, but I still have rarely seen anything to equal the level of viciousness that I saw that day in Wembley. In retrospect, I felt certain that the whole attack had been carefully choreographed - that Dean had been deliberately set up for character assassination. Dean himself shrugged it off, although he seemed shaken. Later we laughed about the incident…but at the time it wasn't funny.


One of the great pleasures of my career has been the opportunity to get to know some of the finest scientists of the 20th (and 21st) centuries.  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 =======================




Baker, Carl G. Discussion with Dr. Dean Burk on His Activities in Matters of "Laetrile" and Cigarette Smoke Modification, Dec. 22, 1969. Retrieved February 21, 2004 from: http://tobaccodocuments.org/atc/60331883.html


Dagani, Ron. Straightening out enzyme kinetics. Chemical & Engineering News 2003;81:27. Retrieved March 13, 2004 from: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/8124/8124jacs125.html


Lineweaver H, Burk D. The determination of enzyme dissociation constants. J Am Chem Soc 1934:56:658-666. Retrieved March 13, 2004 from: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/8124/8124jacs125.html


McKinney, H.L. In Memoriam-Dean Burk (1904-1988). Fluoride 1989;22:3 Retrieved February 21, 2004 from:


States, David M. A History of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research. The Max Planck Institute for Medical Research: Reconstruction after the Second World War. N.d. Retrieved February 21, 2004 from: http://sun0.mpimf-heidelberg.mpg.de/History/index.html



The news and other items in this newsletter are intended for informational purposes only. Nothing in this newsletter is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.