The 12th rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University (SU), Prof Willem (Wim) Johan Simon de Villiers was born in Stellenbosch in 1959. In 1977 he matriculated from Paul Roos Gymnasium with the highest marks out of all students in the (then) Cape Province. As a student at SU he received both the Francie van Zijl and Chancellor’s Medal in 1983 for academic achievement after passing his bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery (MBChB) cum laude.
After registering as a physician with the South African Medical and Dental Council in 1984, De Villiers joined Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape as an intern and medical officer. During this period he would also make the decision to specialise in gastroenterology. This was followed by a period in Pretoria before he accepted the post of registrar in the Department of Internal Medicine at SU in 1986.
The 1990s saw De Villiers leave for the United Kingdom, where he obtained his DPhil in immunology from Oxford University in 1995. After graduating, he took up a position at the University of Kentucky Medical Centre in Lexington, where he would remain for the next 18 years.
During this period he developed a passion for understanding the immunology of the gut, and specifically the role of the innate immune system and macrophages – obtaining a master’s degree in healthcare management from Harvard University, and being featured in The Best Doctors in America publication four times. In addition, his work has been published in top medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and Gastroenterology. His final position at the University of Kentucky was that of head of gastroenterology and administrative head of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington.
Prof De Villiers returned to South Africa in 2013 after accepting the position of dean of health sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Two years later, however, he made the transition to SU, where he has since 2015 held the positions of both rector and vice-chancellor.
Among the professional recognitions he has received to date are an honorary professorship in internal medicine from SU, a fellowship to the American Gastroenterological Association, the Marcos Lins Andrade Endowed Chairship in Gastroenterology, as well as an honorary fellowship to the South African Gastroenterological Society. He is also a member of, among others, the Research Committee of the American College of Gastroenterology and the Association of Science in South Africa (ASSAf).