1. The first years

Looking back on the history of the Chemistry Department, the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (500 BC) come to mind: ‘Panta rei!’ – everything flows, everything changes...

The story of the Chemistry Department actually begins in 1903 (thus 115 years ago) with its inception as a fully-fledged, independent department and the appointment of a person with the formidable full name of Berthault de St. Jean van der Riet as the first professor of Chemistry. Previously, the chair in Chemistry had been linked to those of other department(s) such as Physics and Geology. Berthault van der Riet served as head of the Geology Department from 1895 to 1902 and as head of the Department of Chemistry from 1903 until he reached the (then) voluntary retirement age of 73 years. Up to his retirement in 1940, literally every Stellenbosch chemistry lecturer had studied under Van der Riet. Prof. Berthault van der Riet


Prof. Berthault van der Riet

Van der Riet obtained the MA degree in Natural Science (Chemistry) at the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1890 under the supervision of P.D. Hahn – only the second student to receive the masters degree in natural science in southern Africa, after Charles F. Juritz (1886). Funded by a scholarship, he continued his postgraduate studies in Europe like many South African students after him, and completed his PhD in Chemistry with distinction at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in 1893. His studies included geology and mineralogy and he also studied petrography at the University of Heidelberg.

The original focus in the Chemistry Department was teaching and training, although Van der Riet considered teaching and research as inseparable. He had a particular interest in Organic Chemistry and became well-known for his work on the essential oils of South African plants, although he did most of his research in his spare time since most of his working hours had to be devoted to teaching, administration and establishing a young department. This seems to have been a common problem in those days (as nowadays?) as is evident from a letter written to Van der Riet as early as 1919 by E.J. Goddard of the Zoology Department, in which he ascribes the lack of research by academics (and even their lack of enthusiasm) to ‘excessive teaching and administrative work’, ‘lack of literature’, ‘the inability to retain post-graduate students’ and ‘geographical difficulties’.

In 1896 Van der Riet became a member of the South African Philosophical Society (which became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908), was elected a Fellow of that society in 1912, and served for many years on its board. In 1906 he was chosen as the first president of the Cape Chemical Society and in his presidential address expressed his opinion on the issue of pure vs applied science: ‘But in whatever manner we apply our energies, let us keep in mind that science yields its highest rewards to those who pursue it for its own sake, or at any rate, when they apply science, keep the scientific aspect clearly in view.’ He was also a board member and president (1933/4) of the South African Chemical Institute. In 1918 Van der Riet was requested by the South African government to serve in its Scientific and Technical Committee and the Senate of the University expressed its satisfaction that the government was trying in this way to establish more direct ties between pure scientific investigation and the practical development of the country’s natural resources.

Berthault van der Riet, nicknamed by his students and colleagues as ‘Oubaas Fenol’ or ‘Phenol’, belonged to the generation of perfect gentlemen. That he was a good lecturer is apparent from, amongst others, a testimonial by a former colleague, R. MacWilliam, of Gill College: ‘... he gained the respect and esteem of his pupils in quite an extraordinary degree,...’ The story goes that ‘Phenol’ was in his sixties when he bought his first car and when he was warned that he was going to run somebody down, he answered: ‘I have been dodging them for many years, now it's time they start dodging me.

Van der Riet was the only professor of Chemistry for eight years until a second Chair was established in 1911 and Prof. C.D. (Sarel) van der Merwe was appointed as professor of Inorganic Chemistry. And another eight years later, in 1919, this was followed by the appointment of Prof. D.F. du Toit as professor of Physical Chemistry. A strong Chemistry Department had already been established in Stellenbosch when these three pioneers, Van der Riet, du Toit and Van der Merwe, were succeeded by Proff. J.M. (Joey) Joubert (1940), G.J.R. (Gideon, nicknamed ‘Vriend’ ('Friend') by his students) Krige (1944), and E.F.C.H. (Egmont) Rohwer (1951).

In a Matieland article entitled ‘Toe Afrikaans US se taal geword het’, an alumnus, J.G. Meiring, recalled that the first chemistry lecturers, Van der Riet, Van der Merwe and Du Toit, had given all their lectures in English until one day in 1917 when one of the students asked Sarel van der Merwe during a lecture if he could present his lecture in Afrikaans. He remained silent for a while and then asked the students in Afrikaans where the previous lecture had ended. Since that day all the chemistry lectures were in Afrikaans. It was only many years later – in 1996 in fact – that undergraduate chemistry lectures were given in English, initially only for first-year Forestry students. Since the Forestry department was the only one of its kind in Africa students from other African countries had to be accommodated, hence the English lectures. When the English-speaking BSc students became aware of this, they started attending these lectures in increasing numbers and the department decided to introduce a separate, parallel English first-year chemistry group.

By 1917 the Victoria College had altogether 503 students and 40 lecturers and at that stage students obtained a BA degree in Science. Since 1918, the year of the inception of the Stellenbosch University and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physical Science, a BSc degree has been awarded. The Faculty was renamed the Faculty of Science in 1957. Similar to the way in which contact and overlap between Physics and Chemistry led to the field of Physical Chemistry, the field of Biochemistry gradually developed between Physiology and Chemistry and in 1934 a senior lectureship in Biochemistry was introduced in the Chemistry Department, followed by a chair in 1964 with the appointment of Prof. J.H. (Hannes, or ‘Liefie’) Barnard. In 1974 Biochemistry was established as an independent department when Agricultural Biochemistry (from the Faculty of Agriculture) and the existing Biochemistry section joined forces.

An outstanding feature of the Department during its early years (and very much throughout its history), was its quality teaching. The impact of the first generations of academics who had received their doctorates in Europe and America cannot be underestimated. They offered good quality training to the upcoming generations of young chemists whom they taught, although they did not do much research themselves. A name that immediately comes to mind is that of the very popular and respected academic, Joey Joubert, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious universities in the USA. There were, among others, also P.W. van der Merwe (University of Göttingen), Gideon Krige (Göttingen) and J.H. Kritzinger (Dr. Eng. Chem., Aachen). Lecturers of the Department played an important role in later years in the publication of the first undergraduate chemistry text books in Afrikaans. The first to be published in 1981 was Inleiding tot die Anorganiese en Fisiese Chemie which was followed in 1982 by Inleiding tot Organiese Chemie.

Dr. J.H. Kritzinger was one of Stellenbosch’s colourful characters. Students from all over campus – not only chemistry students – flocked to the lectures of the legendary ‘Krit’ or ‘Krittie’, as he was known. On his retirement in 1971 one of his former students wrote that he had always been in awe of this ‘living example of the caricature storybook scientist, who was somewhat absentminded but also very likable, intensely involved in his subject, but with a broad range of general interests, and of course, slightly mysterious- eccentric’. Kritzinger did indeed have a broad interest in science as such. Besides chemistry, he was, amongst others, also well-grounded in astronomy, and was an expert in the cutting and polishing of precious and semi-precious gems and the polishing of telescope lenses.

Chemistry moves into its own building

The very first building to be erected on campus after the University was established in 1918, was the De Beers Building for Chemistry, on the corner of Merriman Avenue and De Beer.

Street. Before the erection of the De Beers building

When the newly-founded University began its activities in 1918, it had only six academic buildings. One of these was the Laboratorium voor Scheikunde, situated on the premises of the current HB Thom theatre. Previously known as the Hollandse Saal, it housed the departments of Chemistry, Zoology and Applied Mathematics from 1908. By 1918 Chemistry occupied the entire building, which at that stage had general laboratories as well as a smaller specialised Physical Chemistry laboratory, two classrooms, a chemical balance room and five smaller rooms for personnel and storage space.

The De Beers building

The plans for the new building were already drawn up in 1919, ‘appointed completely according to the demands of present times’. The foundations were laid by 1920 but the building, including a coal gas installation, was only completed early in 1923 thanks to a donation of £25,000 from the De Beers Company in Somerset West. On 4 June of that year it was officially opened by Sir David Harris, a mining magnate and director of De Beers. Another result of the good relationship between De Beers and the Chemistry Department was that for many years the company donated all the inorganic acids required by the Department.


The lecturers and third-year students of 1923 – the very first final-year class in the new De Beers building. The five lecturers are seated in the second row from the front, from third person on the left: Dr. D.B. Joubert, Prof. C.D. van der Merwe, Prof. B. de St. J. van der Riet, Prof. D.F. du Toit and Dr. (later Prof.) J.M. Joubert.

A marked feature of the De Beers building was (and still is) that the best materials available at the time were used in its construction. Real Burmese teak was used amply and the laboratories and reading rooms all had Jarrah floors. The entrance hall is tiled with black and white imported marble and granite was used for the foundations and entrance steps. It can probably be said that, as in the case of palaces, space was wasted, but it is precisely this feature which lends the building its charm, particularly the quad with its broad arched passages. Over all the years, since its construction, no changes were made to its exterior – the De Beersgebouw vir Gemie was built in one go! However, over the years many changes and renovations have taken place in its ‘heart’.

In 1990 the De Beers building was completely renovated at a cost of R5.5m to meet changing needs and particularly also safety requirements. The building was vacated completely and staff members were accommodated in various locations elsewhere on campus for almost a year. The renovations included, amongst others, a sophisticated analytical laboratory for Prof. Ben Burger’s Ecological Chemistry research group and a modern lecture hall named after Prof. Mike de Vries.

Twenty years later, in 2009/2010, two undergraduate laboratories in the De Beers building were completely refurbished, mainly to accommodate Prof. Len Barbour’s Supramolecular Chemistry research group and Prof. Willem van Otterlo’s Organic Chemistry research group. And finally, in 2014, the accessibility of the building was attended to: a lift, wheelchair-friendly cloakroom and ramps were added. Over the years the De Beers building kept pace with developments in chemical research through upgrading and modernising, but at the same time also succeeded in retaining some of its old-world character.


De Beers building after completion in 1923


Old and new...

3. The 1950 – 1980’s

Until about 1950, owing to limited staff and facilities, promising students were advised in their own interest to undertake advanced research studies abroad and to then come to Stellenbosch to graduate. However, since 1954 the DSc degrees in Chemistry were mainly awarded for research that was done exclusively in the Department itself, the first being awarded to F. van Zyl (in Biochemistry), D.M. (Daan) Kemp (lecturer in the Department and later head of the Chemistry Section of the Atomic Board) and J.G.H. (Jan) du Preez (Springbok rugby player and later professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the Universities of the Western Cape and Port Elizabeth). The promoter of the first-mentioned candidate was Dr. Hannes ‘Liefie’ Barnard while the promoter of the latter two was Prof. E.F.C.H. (Egmont) Rohwer, who obtained his doctorate at the University of Freiburg and served as professor of Inorganic Chemistry in the Department from 1951-1977. At one stage there were 14 chemistry professors simultaneously employed at different South African universities who had all been trained in the Department. More than half of these had obtained their MSc or PhD degrees under Egmont Rohwer’s supervision. One of his students, and successor as professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Prof. J.J. (Joh) Cruywagen, was involved in research in the field of molybdenum chemistry for some 40 years. The discovery by Rohwer and Cruywagen that, contrary to what was generally accepted, a change in coordination number takes place in the first ionisation step of molybdenum, served to explain the complex behaviour of molybdenum.


From left to right: Prof. Egmont Rohwer Prof. Chris Garbers Prof. Mike de Vries

A unique aspect of the Department was its Radiochemistry section which was initiated by Dr. Daan Kemp and later expanded by Prof. C. (Len) Olivier to provide training for students from third-year to PhD level.

Another one of Stellenbosch’s most colourful characters was the legendary Mr. Frits Stegmann, who is remembered by his contemporaries as much more than only a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry (1948-1984). He was brilliant – described at school as a second Einstein – and known as a walking music encyclopaedia. His collection of records (in the days before CD’s) was the most extensive in South Africa, even larger than that of the SABC at the time. He was the author of, amongst others, the standard work on operetta, Die Afrikaanse Operettegids. Quite remarkable was the large number of famous international musicians whom he knew personally and with whom he corresponded regularly, Sir Thomas Beecham, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Tauber, Benjamin Britten, Herbert von Karajan, to name but a few. He was instrumental in bringing many great names to South Africa to visit and perform here.

All the chemistry sections were housed under one roof in the De Beers building for about 35 years until growing student numbers necessitated the erection of the so-called First Year building (also in De Beer Street) in 1958, followed in 1964 by a building in Bosman Street, which was mainly occupied by the Inorganic Chemistry section and also housed the chemistry library and the glassblowing and electronics workshops.

In the 1970’s the Department obtained the services of Mr. Geiling, a master glassblower from Germany. Two of his successors, Frank Lyons and Eric Ward, both master glassblowers from Britain and two of the Department’s popular and interesting characters, kept up the proud glassblowing tradition in Stellenbosch.

Like the glassblowers, the technical personnel played an essential role in research and training in the department over the years. The very first laboratory assistant to be appointed in the Department was the legendary John Biscombe, originally a plumber by trade and lured away from a canning factory in Wellington by Sarel van der Merwe before the First World War. Through his experience John probably knew just as much about the practical side of inorganic and organic chemistry as most undergraduate students, although his theoretical knowledge was somewhat dangerous. When William Adonis first reported for duty as technical officer in 1975 and asked Egmont Rohwer what his duties entailed, the professor sent him directly to Neels Kannemeyer, the inorganic chemistry laboratory assistant with the instruction: ‘Go and ask Neels – he will tell you everything’. Adonis himself became an expert in first-year practicals during his 42 years in the Department’s employ. Glen de Jongh, who was employed in the Department as senior and chief technical officer between 1985-2018, served on the SU Council as representative of the University’s non-academic personnel between 2003 and 2014.

Currently the Department also occupies a section of the Mike de Vries building in Merriman Avenue as well as the Polymer Science building (more on this later), which means that the Department is housed in five separate buildings on campus – indeed a logistical challenge.

In 1958 Prof. C.F. (Chris) Garbers joined the Department after completing his DPhil degree with distinction under the Nobel prizewinner Paul Karrer at the University of Zurich in 1954. He was professor of Organic Chemistry from 1966 until 1978 and played an important role in the development of research in the Department through the establishment of the Research Unit for Polyene Chemistry under his leadership. During 1964 he undertook research as co- worker of the 1969 Nobel prizewinner, Derek Barton, at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.

Chris Garbers served as President of the CSIR between 1980 and 1990. His successor at the CSIR, Chris van der Merwe Brink, was a Stellenbosch graduate and is remembered as one of South Africa’s most eminent scientists. Garbers was a member of the UNESCO/IUPAC International Chemistry Council, served on Pres. Nelson Mandela’s National Commission for Higher Education and was presented with the State President’s National Order for Outstanding Service. He was also awarded the South African Medal (Gold) by the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1980 and the Havenga Prize by the South African Academy for Science and Arts in 1977. When the prestigious H van Eck Medal was awarded to him by the Chemical Institute in 1991, the ceremony was attended by 12 of his former students who all held senior posts at universities and research institutions in Pretoria and Johannesburg at that stage. The great esteem with which Garbers is held in South Africa has culminated in four honorary doctorates being awarded to him by the Universities of South Africa (1989), Cape Town (1990), Stellenbosch (1991), and Pretoria (1994), respectively.

Chris Garbers was succeeded by Prof. R.R. (Reinhard) Arndt who was professor of Organic Chemistry during 1979 and 1980 and became the first President of the Foundation for Research Development (FRD, currently the National Research Foundation, NRF) in 1990. He and Prof. Jack de Wet played leading roles in establishing the NRF research rating and funding system that fundamentally changed research in South Africa. Arndt’s contribution to the development of research since the 1980’s cannot be over-emphasised and was acknowledged by the NRF when he was honoured with the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004 and also by the University of the Free State when he received an honorary doctorate from this institution in 1993. In 1987, during the early stages of South Africa’s connection to the Internet, Arndt recognised the need for universities and researchers to be connected to a national network and he initiated this process.

In the years shortly after the Second World War postgraduate, second- and third-year student numbers were relatively high, but as the emphasis shifted towards the applied sciences, especially engineering, the numbers in chemistry declined over the years, while the numbers in courses servicing other departments and faculties increased. In the 1950’s money was tight, there was very little technical assistance in the laboratories, and research was not a priority – unlike teaching, however. Most of the curricula were outdated and equipment, general apparatus and scientific instrumentation needed upgrading. It was of immense help that the CSIR made its modern instrumentation available to universities during these times. And vitally important was the financial support of the CSIR’s University Research Division (URD), additional to the University’s contribution, to get research under way. A huge improvement in the availability of more sophisticated equipment took place when the University decided to purchase an AEI high resolution mass spectrometer, followed soon after by the donation by the Maize Board of a high resolution Varian 60 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer, for amongst others, research on the improvement of the nutritional value of maize as staple food. Through these acquisitions, and with equipment already purchased with CSIR support, the Department was finally well equipped for research. The approval in 1969 by the CSIR of a SU/CSIR Research Unit for Polyene Chemistry in the Department gave research a further boost.

It is interesting to compare the prices of the first large instruments purchased by the Department with current prices. For example, the high resolution mass spectrometer mentioned above, was bought for R72 000 in 1970, while the current cost of an X-ray diffractometer (of which there are four in Len Barbour’s laboratory) is about R9.5m. The replacement of the 600 MHz NMR instrument which was bought for R10m* in 1998, and which is due soon, is already estimated at a cost of more than R20m. [*The University actually paid only R5m after Varian offered a 50% discount. In exchange for this, it was specified that the instrument was to be put into commission and operated by Mr. Hendrik Spies, the Department’s NMR technician and noted NMR specialist, as a ‘demonstration model’ with the view to future sales of the instrument in South Africa.]

The introduction of BSc Honours degrees during the 1960’s can also be seen as a step to stimulate research at the University. In order to align with the CSIR funding of bursaries for postgraduate studies, the established system of a 3-year B-degree followed by a 2-year M- degree was changed to a 3-year B-degree, followed by a 1-year Honours degree, followed in turn by a research-based M-degree.

During an investigation of the state of engineering in South Africa it was concluded that all faculties of engineering should also offer chemical engineering. This resulted in the introduction of Chemical Engineering in Stellenbosch in 1969 as a joint venture between the two faculties – an institution which produced many excellent students for chemistry studies, notably Ed Jacobs who completed his BSc BEng in 1976 and his PhD in Polymer Science in 1988.

Chris Garbers was instrumental in the appointment of Prof. (then Dr.) M.J. (Mike) de Vries as senior lecturer in the Department after he had completed his doctorate in Physical Chemistry summa cum laude at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg, funded by a bursary of the Department of Agriculture. With the retirement of Gideon Krige, De Vries was appointed at a very young age as professor of Physical Chemistry in 1964 and succeeded in 1975 by one of his former research students, Prof. W.J. (Willem) Engelbrecht. Mike De Vries’s career as chemist was relatively short, but its effect was extensive. He was a major driving force in the renewal of curricula and the launching of research. He later served as Vice-Rector of the University from 1976 to 1979, as Rector from 1979 and Vice-Chancellor from 1981 until his retirement in 1993. The lecture hall in the De Beers building was named after him in 1992 and the Mike de Vries building received his name in 2005.

Two of Garbers’s first research students later both became professors of Organic Chemistry in the Department: Prof. D.J. (Dawie) Schneider who succeeded Reinhard Arndt as professor, specialised in the field of organophosphorus chemistry, while Prof. B.V. (Ben) Burger combined his expertise in both Organic and Analytical Chemistry to establish a new research field, Chemical Ecology, in the Department. He has been honoured for his work in the field of semiochemistry with, amongst others, the Havenga Prize (in 1989) and the South African Chemical Institute’s Medal for Chemistry (Gold) in 2004. In 2001 the International M.J.E. Golay Silver Medal was awarded to him in the USA for pioneering work in the development of capillary chromatography.

In 1979 Ben Burger was the first lecturer in the Department to have a post-doctoral researcher from Europe work under his supervision. One of his international students, Wolfgang Mackenroth, enrolled as full-time post-doctoral researcher in the Laboratory for Ecological Research in 1985 funded by a CSIR bursary. Prof. Mackenroth, who is currently Vice-President of BASF, has since then returned to Stellenbosch annually to present lectures in Industrial Chemistry in his capacity as Extraordinary Professor.

When the new evaluation system was implemented by the NRF in 1984, Ben Burger and Dawie Schneider were the first researchers in the Department to receive an evaluation and two years later Ben Burger and Fritz Hahne (Physics) were the first two researchers in the the Faculty to receive A-ratings.

One cannot discuss the development of Polymer Science at the Stellenbosch University without including the career of Prof. R.D. (Ron) Sanderson; the two are inextricably interwoven. Ron Sanderson had recently completed his PhD at Akron University in the United States and was the only polymer scientist in South Africa when he was appointed in the Department as senior lecturer in 1970.

Research in polymer science began in a single laboratory in the old Inorganic building. Through Sanderson’s driving force, leadership and enthusiasm, it expanded until the Institute for Polymer Science was established in 1977 as a separate entity within the University. It functioned as part of the Department of Chemistry, but with funding entirely from outside of the University. Sanderson was appointed as director of the institute in 1978, a post which he held until his retirement in 2008. Two of his first PhD students later became professors of Polymer Science: Prof. E.P. (Ed) Jacobs received international recognition for the development of microfiltration membrane technology for water purification and Prof. A.J. (Albert) van Reenen whose research focuses on the fractionation and characterization of polyolefins, was the first academic, besides Sanderson, to be appointed in the Institute with full remuneration from the University.

As the Institute grew in stature, the next milestone, namely the introduction of a Polymer Science Honours degree, was reached in 1982. This was the first, and is still the only, honours course at tertiary level in South Africa.

Albert van Reenen recalls how he had just decided to apply for the new honours course in polymer science, when the Institute building was burnt to ashes (with some spectacular explosions – a ruptured gas cylinder was recovered more than a kilometer from the fire the next day). Not in the least deterred, Ron Sanderson moved his operations to an old Engineering workshop. This is where Van Reenen met Sanderson for the first time; surrounded by piles of smoke-blackened lab equipment and glassware. The result of his enquiry to Sanderson about the 1983 honours program was that he found himself cleaning glassware some 30 minutes later; apparently already de facto an honours student...

Two initiatives of Ron Sanderson in particular have had a huge impact on developments over the past two decades. Firstly, he convinced two large local companies (Plascon and Mondi) to house their research and development facilities within the Institute building and to then donate their acquired equipment to the Institute. This agreement, together with resulting funding through the THRIP program, allowed for a complete renewal of the research equipment within the Institute during the 1990’s. Secondly, he started the UNESCO Associated Center for Macromolecules and Materials. This, coupled with his involvement with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), led to a series of international conferences, the first of which was held in Stellenbosch in 1998. This initiative led to large- scale international research collaborations, and importantly, good relationships with outstanding international academics. Two of these, Bert Klumperman and Harald Pasch, eventually also took up positions in the Department. A measurable effect of these two developments, for example, was that previously (before 2000) the number of peer-reviewed papers emanating from the Institute had been very limited, but increased by almost 230 between 2000-2009 and then doubled again by 2016.

These developments coincided with the appointment of Helgard Raubenheimer as Head of the Department in 1999. He set about recruiting greater financial support for the Institute, while also attending to the academic issues. An additional academic post was assigned to Polymer Science in which the current Head of Department, Prof. (then Dr.) P.E. Mallon was appointed and eventually, in 2008, the Institute was formally disbanded and the name of the Department changed to the present-day Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science.

Peter Mallon tells the story of travelling from the USA for his interview for the new post, arriving on a Friday and preparing to meet with Ron Sanderson on the Saturday as a ‘getting to know you’ session. Sanderson met him at the guest-house, dressed in shorts, a paint-spattered T-shirt and slip-slops. A little while later Mallon found himself helping Sanderson paint his house.

At this stage the impetus that had been provided by the developments in the late 1990’s, made the negotiation of a R25m revamp of the infrastructure and some instrumentation in the Polymer Science building possible. Today the Polymer division has 5 modern, well- equipped laboratories and state-of-the-art research equipment. There are 8 academic members of staff associated with the division (2 distinguished professors in research chairs, 2 full professors, 1 researcher, 1 research associate and 2 lecturers), with a good complement of support staff (including the last remaining fully externally funded employee in the division). Furthermore, there are no fewer than 51 post-graduate students enrolled within the division. This is quite a distance removed from one small lab in 1977...

4. At the dawn of a new millennium


From left to right: Prof. Ben Burger, Prof. Ron Sanderson and Prof. Helgard G. Raubenheimer

In 1998 Prof. H.G. (Helgard) Raubenheimer, a Stellenbosch graduate, joined the Department as professor of Inorganic Chemistry. Previously from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg), he relocated to Stellenbosch with his research team consisting of five post-doctoral students from Germany and a number of PhD and MSc students, to establish research in the chemistry of metals, particularly gold compounds – a research field which was completely new to the Department. He also brought to Stellenbosch his experience in successfully linking industry to university research. This was to have a major impact on the growth of the Department during his terms as Head of the Department during the period 1999-2008 (as in fact already mentioned with regards to the development of the Polymer section).

Helgard Raubenheimer’s world-class research benefited greatly from his collaboration in 1973 and 1980 with Nobel prizewinner Ernst Otto Fischer at the Technical University of Munich and with Dieter Seebach at the ETH in Zurich in 1985. He was a recipient of, amongst others, the Havenga Prize in 2008 and the SACI Gold Medal for Chemistry in 2002. His research pertaining to ligand design and application in catalysis and medicine was acknowledged by the dedication of a Special Edition of Zeitschrift für Naturforschung B on the occasion of his 65 th birthday.

With his retirement in 2008, Raubenheimer was succeeded as professor of Inorganic Chemistry by Prof. S.F. (Selwyn) Mapolie, a graduate of the University of Cape Town (1989) and previously in the employ of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) for almost 17 years where he also served as Deputy Dean of the Science Faculty. His research interests cover the areas of organometallic synthesis, dendrimer chemistry, homogeneous catalysis and polymer hybrid materials.

When a chair in Analytical Chemistry was introduced in 1998, Prof. K.R. (Klaus) Koch, previously in the employ of the University of Cape Town, was appointed in this new post. At the time of his appointment, he was already an established inorganic chemist in the field of platinum group metals as well as an NMR specialist. Klaus Koch has made a major contribution to high quality research in the Department and also to the teaching of molecular spectroscopy, particularly NMR spectroscopy. He served as Head of the Department between 2009-2013. A further appointment in the Analytical section in 1999 was that of Prof. Andrew Crouch, a specialist in the field of electrochemistry, previously from the UWC and currently Deputy Vice- Chancellor: Academic, at the University of the Witwatersrand. Crouch was the first black academic to be appointed as professor in the Chemistry Department.

The Analytical section benefited greatly from the special appointment of Prof. P. (Pat) Sandra of the Ghent University and the Eindhoven University of Technology. A leading separations scientist, he was the recipient of the prestigious LCGC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 and the first researcher at the Stellenbosch University to receive the highest A1 evaluation from the NRF. Pat Sandra made a significant contribution to advanced teaching and research in Analytical Chemistry in the Department.

The capacity and expertise in the Analytical section was further enhanced by the appointment in 2007 of Prof. (then Dr.) A.J. (André) de Villiers, a separation scientist specializing in the field of wine research and former student of Pat Sandra. De Villiers received global recognition for his research when in 2014 he was the recipient of the prestigious LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography Award, which recognises the achievements of ‘talented young professionals who have made strides early in their career towards the advancement of chromatographic applications and techniques.’ He is also the 2015 recipient of the SACI Raikes Medal. An important step was taken in 1999 with the appointment in the Physical Chemistry section of Prof. J.L.M (Jan) Dillen from Belgium, a specialist in structural chemistry, computational molecular modelling and quantum mechanics. He received his doctorate from the University of Antwerp in 1981 and held positions at the CSIR and the University of Pretoria before relocating to Stellenbosch.

In 2000 the Department was subjected to a process of external evaluation and the panelists were of the opinion that although they were impressed by the quality of the teachers and their devotion to their educational mission, this could in some cases possibly have been to the detriment of research. At this stage, only 10 of the 17 academics were in fact NRF-rated researchers.

5. An era of unprecedented growth: 2000 – 2008

In 2003 the Department celebrated its (first) 100 years as a department! A function was held on 4 February 2004 which was attended by former lecturers and students with invited guest speakers Chris Garbers, Reinhard Arndt, Ben Burger, Helgard Raubenheimer, Joh Cruywagen, Dawie Schneider and Erick Strauss. Truly an occasion of nostalgia and proud memories...

Unlike the 2000 external evaluation, the 2008 panel acknowledged the high quality research and increase in the rate of tangible outputs, and congratulated the Department with this achievement. The panelists referred to three individuals (Burger, Sanderson and Raubenheimer) as ‘the three giants of this Department’ and stated that ‘Prof. Raubenheimer‘s vision and management have rendered this one of the of the leading teaching and research Departments in South Africa.’

The Department had undergone considerable restructuring since 1998, at great expense (investments of more than R10m by 2006), and mostly with regard to the acquisition of new research equipment and the appointment of key personnel. After almost all the chemistry professors had retired in the preceding period, the deans Fritz Hahne (particularly) and Albert van Jaarsveld and the rectors Andreas van Wyk and Chris Brink, played important motivational and financially supportive roles in rebuilding the Department in the ensuing years. During this period five staff members were acknowledged by the NRF as international leaders in their respective fields (with A or B1 ratings) and two NRF/DST SA Research Chairs were established in the Department. These recognitions made it possible to secure significant financial support from the University, private industry and the NRF, mainly for capacity building, the upgrading of existing laboratories and importantly, the conversion of existing undergraduate laboratories into modern research space.

Funds were also made available to appoint the necessary support staff, to obtain important sophisticated capital equipment (e.g. a 500 MHz solid state NMR spectrometer) and to appoint a new professor of Polymer Chemistry in a SASOL-sponsored Research Chair. At this point it is certainly appropriate to acknowledge the significant involvement of SASOL in the development of the Department over many years, and more recently also the Polymer Science section in particular. The generous sponsorship provided over many years by SASOL Polymers greatly contributed to the remarkable growth and productivity of this section.

The three Research Chairs are indeed highlights in the more recent history of the Department. The SA Research Chairs were awarded to Bert Klumperman (Advanced Macromolecular Architectures) and Len Barbour (Nanostructured Functional Materials) in 2006 and 2007 respectively, while the SASOL Chair was awarded to Harald Pasch (Analytical Polymer Science) in 2008.


From left to right: Prof. Bert Klumperman, Prof. Len Barbour, and Prof. Harald Pasch

Prof. L. (Bert) Klumperman obtained his PhD at the Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) in 1994 and his DSc at the University of Stellenbosch in 2012, with Prof. Peter Mallon as his promoter. When he was appointed at the University in 2006, he had already been involved as Extraordinary Professor in lecturing and supervising postgraduate students in the Department. An NRF A-rated researcher since 2007, Klumperman is the editor of the European Polymer Journal (Elsevier) and Editor in Chief of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. He received the SACI Gold Medal in 2013 and is also the recipient of the 2016 NSTF Lifetime Award and of the 2018 John F.W. Herschel Medal of the Royal Society of South Africa, which is the senior medal of the Society.

Prof. L.J. (Len) Barbour joined the Department in 2003 and established a brand new research field: supramolecular chemistry and materials. Soon after he had been awarded one of the first DST/NRF Research Chairs in 2007, extensive changes were made to one wing of the De Beers building to accommodate his research team and sophisticated instrumentation. Len Barbour obtained his PhD at the University of Cape Town in 1994 and DSc at Stellenbosch University in 2013, with promoter Prof. Catharine Esterhuysen. He is an NRF A-rated researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) and a SACI Gold Medallist (2014). He has been honoured with the NSTF award for Research and its Outputs Over the Past 5 Years or Less (2007/8) and the SASOL Innovator of the Year Award (2013).

Prof. H. (Harald) Pasch completed his PhD in Macromolecular Chemistry at the German Academy of Sciences (Berlin) in 1982 and his DSc (Habilitation, Macromolecular Science) at the same institution in 1987. Like Bert Klumperman, Harald Pasch also presented lectures and supervised postgraduate students in his capacity as Extraordinary Professor before being appointed in the Department permanently in 2008. He is the 2017 recipient of the SACI Gold Medal.

In 2003 Dr. Erick Strauss, a graduate of Cornell University in the USA, was appointed in the Department where he established a new research group focusing on chemical biology and initiated the inclusion of Chemical Biology as a new stream in the Department’s undergraduate offering. In 2008 he moved to the Biochemistry Department where he was appointed as associate professor and later (in 2014) as professor of Biochemistry. A new degree, BSc Textile and Polymer Science, was launched in the Department in 2003 and later evolved into a 3-year BSc in Chemistry: stream Textile and Polymer Science.

The development of this unique degree was coordinated by Adine Gericke, with the enthusiastic guidance and support of Ron Sanderson and key role players in the SA Textile Industry. It is significant that, as already mentioned, the complete integration in 2008 of the Polymer Institute within the renamed Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science also took place in this eventful period in the Department’s history.

By 2007 no fewer than 72% of the academics in the Department had received NRF-ratings, which represented an appreciable increase in research capacity since the previous external evaluation (in 2000). There was, for instance, a marked increase in peer-evaluated, subsidy- bearing publications, that exceeded those of the rest of the Faculty for the period 2005-2007. In 2006 the Department surpassed itself with a record number of publications in accredited journals in one year, namely 86.

At this stage most of the research in the Department was being conducted in no fewer than 15 research groups! It was realised that fewer and larger groups were probably necessary in order to make a bigger international impact and a greater co-operative focus therefore became a goal for the next five years.

This is perhaps the appropriate place to highlight those focus areas that have called significant international attention to the Department and within which publications were frequently cited and are still being cited. A few belong to the past, but most are still active. The first were certainly Rohwer and Cruywagen’s ionisation equilibria and coordination chemistry of molybdenum (e.g. extensively cited in the authoritative Advanced Inorganic Chemistry by Cotton and Wilkinson), and Garbers’s polyene chemistry (1960’s and 1970’s). This was followed by Burger’s semiochemistry (1976-present, notably also the work on dung beetles between 1983-2007), polymer chemistry by Sanderson (1970’s-recent), Raubenheimer’s carbene and gold chemistry (1998-present) and Koch’s NMR work (1998-present). Publications by Klumperman on design, synthesis and characterization of complex polymer architectures (2002-present), Barbour and co-researchers on supramolecular chemistry (2004-present), and Pasch on analytical techniques for polymers (2008-present) are considered internationally to be authoritative in their respective fields. More recently younger generation chemists, notably Willem van Otterlo and André de Villiers, have been making their mark in the international domain.

It is of course very important to bear in mind that these leading scientists also represent entire teams of postgraduate students, researchers and academic co-workers whose indispensable inputs have contributed to their success.

6. The growth continues [2009 – present]

Three of the Department’s staff members now hold the honorary title: Distinguished Professor on account of their international stature and other criteria of excellence: Bert Klumperman and Harald Pasch (since 2014) and Len Barbour (since 2016) A valuable addition to the Department, and the Organic Chemistry section in particular, took place in 2010 with the appointment of Prof. W.A.L. (Willem) van Otterlo, a SACI Raikes medalist (2004) and previously in the employ of the University of the Witwatersrand where he also completed his PhD in 1999. Since his relocation to Stellenbosch he has established an active, growing research group – the Group for Medicinal and Organic Chemistry (GOMAC) – in the Department by joining forces with the existing group of Dr. Gareth Arnott. The group’s research focuses on directed organic synthesis and includes research in medicinal chemistry, chemical biology and biochemistry, as well as increasing collaboration with the research group of Bert Klumperman with respect to new polymer-based drug delivery systems. GOMAC has about 20 postgraduate students and is currently the second largest group in the Department after the groups in polymer science.

Important aspects of growth during this period have been sustained excellent research outputs as well as the Department’s initiatives regarding safety and community interaction – particularly SUNCOI (SU Chemistry Outreach Initiative) led by Rehana Malgas-Enus and Klaus Koch. The re-structuring of the Department under an Executive Head of Department has reaped positive results and the two HOD’s, Klaus Koch (2009-2013) and Peter Mallon (2013- present), have played important roles in bringing this about.

Besides the previously mentioned major investments in the infrastructure of the De Beers and Polymer buildings, the Department also benefited greatly from a more recent investment with respect to the First Year building. The building was completely renovated and transformed into a first-year teaching complex, to be commissioned in this, the University’s centenary year.

Although by its nature this chapter has focused on the highlights with regards to the research achievements within the Department, one cannot refrain from mentioning once again the tradition of dedication to high quality education which goes back to the founding of the Department and continues to this day, albeit on a somewhat larger scale! In the early years there was only a handful of first-year students and today the Department has about 1000 first- year students per year. Since the University introduced its First-Year Achievement Award in 2010, five of the Department’s lecturers have been nominated by top-performing first-year students as those lecturers who have had a positive influence on their academic experience. Previously (between 1994-2009) four former chemistry lecturers had been honored with the Rector’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for their exceptional contribution to teaching.

The Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science is currently one of the largest departments of the University with 59 academic and support staff members in total. The average age of the academic corps – 46 years – is relatively young and the average age decreases even further if the research students are included: 54 MSc, 65 PhD and 16 post-doctoral.

When the University officially opened its doors to students of all population groups in 1978, 60 years after it had been established, there were only two black students in the first-year chemistry class that year. There were no black lecturers in the Department at that stage. Currently 45 (about 38%) of the Department’s postgraduate students are black, while 4 academic staff members, including a professor and senior lecturer, are black.

In this day and age it is quite comical to reflect that when the Inorganic building was originally built in 1964, it had three separate cloakrooms: one for gents, one for ladies and one for lecturers. This of course implied that all chemistry lecturers were of the same sex, namely male. This was in fact the case until the first female, Dr. Maritha le Roux, was appointed as part-time lecturer in 1977. In due time female lecturers were appointed permanently and today the situation is quite different (better!): currently 10 of the 24 lecturers are women, including a professor and associate professor. Prof. C. (Catharine) Esterhuysen, a physical chemist and specialist in the field of structural chemistry, obtained her PhD at the Rand Afrikaans University in 2000 and was appointed in the Department in the same year. She is the very first woman to hold the positions of associate professor (since 2012) and full professor (since 2018) in the Department. Prof. D.A. (Delia) Haynes, who completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge (UK) in 2002 and specialises in crystal engineering, was appointed in the Department in 2007 and promoted to associate professor of Inorganic Chemistry in 2014.

A survey of the Department’s research activities shows that the Department is one of the two leading chemical research departments in South Africa and Africa in general and has the largest number of NRF-evaluated researchers (18 in total) in the country. The two A-rated researchers in the Department represent half of all the A-rated chemists in South Africa, and the five B-rated researchers 16.6% of all B-rated chemists. Although the three Research Chairs contribute greatly to the Department’s research output, there is currently also a broad basis of quality research in the Department which had not always been the case in the past.

The statement above is partially corroborated by the fact that the Department has recently (2015) been named the leading Chemistry Department in Africa with regards to its contribution to the Nature Index, which is published in Nature. This international index only takes into account papers published in 68 selected, prestigious scientific journals. Important contributions were made by the research groups of Harald Pasch, Bert Klumperman, Klaus Koch, and particularly, Len Barbour. Although it may be possible to maintain this leading position in the years ahead, it is important that the Department should in future measure itself against small departments outside Africa. The challenge further is to secure the necessary financial support in order to enable more chemists to contribute high-quality papers on a continuous basis.

Although the establishment of Research Chairs in the Department has brought about appreciable consolidation of research activities, the goal set at the end of 2008 with regards to decreasing the number of research groups, has only been partially realised. In future it will probably become increasingly necessary for more groups to combine their research efforts in order to obtain sufficient financial support to generate world-class research.

There is currently a very good balance of senior researchers and younger, enthusiastic up-and- coming researchers and teachers, who are now busy writing the Department’s story – the story which in future will become its history. When the bicentenary history of the Department is written a hundred years from now, it will be possible to look back at the current period as a time of growth as a leading research and teaching department in South Africa and on the African continent – a success story that has been the result of a team effort in which each individual team member has made a vital contribution.

A last word... In an interesting article in the Matieland, Hannes (‘Liefie’) Barnard recalls the history of the De Beers building and its people in the fifty years between 1922-1972 and what strikes one is the enthusiasm with which his contemporaries and predecessors experienced the Department and its lecturers. It was said to be a tradition, for example, that the friends, colleagues and senior students of Prof. Sarel van der Merwe were all welcome at his home on his birthday on 4 September each year. The atmosphere in the Department those days was said to be pleasant and jovial. And what about a hundred-plus years later? When Albert van Reenen was recently asked why internationally distinguished chemists such as those occupying research chairs would choose to stay and work in South Africa, his answer was: ‘Because they are happy here! Stellenbosch is a beautiful town to live in and we are a happy department!’ Panta rei! – everything flows, everything changes... but at the same time some things stay the same...

SOURCES • Africana collection, JS Gericke Library, Stellenbosch University • S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science • Stellenbosch 1866-1966: Honderd Jaar Hoër Onderwys, HB Thom et al., 1966 • Stellenbosch University Archives • Matieland 1957- 2014 • Prof MJ de Vries. Stellenbosch University, 1993 • Personal communication: Chris Garbers, Joh Cruywagen, Helgard Raubenheimer, Ben Burger, Albert van Reenen • Departmental external evaluation report 2000; 2008

Dr Maritha le Roux


April 2018

For Afrikaans version of the article click here