It was with great regret that we received the news of the passing of Nathanaël Grobbelaar on 4 January 2015, previously professor and Head of Department of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry and later of the Department of Botany, University of Pretoria (1958-1986). He also held the Bertha Stoneman Chair from 1959-1985 at UP. He is survived by his wife, Hanneke, four children and eight grandchildren.
Nat Grobbelaar was born on 27 August 1928 and obtained his matric at the Pearson High School in Port Elizabeth. He received a bursary for being the top scholar in the Eastern Cape and later obtained the degree BSc in Chemistry and Botany at the University of Rhodes cum laude. His MSc in Plant Biochemistry (1952) was also awarded cum laude, at the University of Pretoria, under the supervision of Prof Margaretha Mes, one of his mentors. He was awarded a prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship and left for the USA where he obtained his PhD in 1954 in Plant Biochemistry at Cornell University under the supervision of Prof F.C. Steward. He then went on a research visit to King’s College in the UK and upon his return to South Africa accepted a lectureship at UP in July 1955. In 1958 he was promoted to senior lecturer in the Department of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry.
The results of Nat Grobbelaar’s research on the biosynthesis of amino acids, including pipecolic acid, as well as his novel work on nitrogen exchange of cyanobacteria and plants, can still be found in today’s main international textbooks. He also became an internationally recognised scientist for his work on the metabolic regulation of various plant metabolites, especially poisonous compounds, as well as for his cycad research.
His big interest in nitrogen fixation in plants and bacteria resulted in the H.G.W.J. Schweickerdt Herbarium of the Department housing a great number of legume specimens that were collected on his many field excursions. The botanic garden of the Department also benefited from the physiological work done by Nat Grobbelaar on the genus Encephalartos. In 1986 he requested the University to be released from his duties as head of the Department, but to remain on as professor.
Apart from training many leading plant physiologists, one of his other major contributions to Botany was that he had the courage to start the South African Journal of Botany as one of the national scientific journals with state funding when the Journal of South African Botany (National Botanical Gardens) and Bothalia (Botanical Research Institute) refused to amalgamate to form one national botanical journal. The South African Journal of Botany is currently one of the leading botanical journals in the world.
He served on various professional international boards and commissions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association pour l’Etude Taxonomique de la Flora d’Afrique Tropicale, the American Society of Plant Physiologists, and the Botanical Society of America. Nat was president or chairman of various organisations, including the International Union of Biological Scientists, The South African Journal of Science, the Professional Advisory Board of the SA Council for Natural Scientists, the SA Association of Botanists and the Cycad Society of South Africa.
Nat Grobbelaar received several awards and prizes for his research contributions, including the Junior Captain Scott medal and the Havenga Prize of the SA Academy of Science and Art. He was the author and co-author of more than 185 articles in scientific and popular journals and 12 books, including the well-read ‘Cycads; with special reference to the southern African species’. After retirement he was still very active working on Cycads until he passed away.
His logical, objective, rational and enthusiastic approach to research was an exceptional gift. His honest, open and straightforward opinion on any matter was often a talking point amongst his colleagues. He frequently played pranks on his colleagues and could recount these episodes with much humour. Nat’s favourite quote (by Louis Pasteur) was probably:
‘In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.’
Nathanaël Grobbelaar was an exceptional leading mind, role model and inspiration for many natural scientists, young and old and we cherish his memory.
Obituary of Professor Oswald Makunga
Obituary of Professor Ramakrishna Balakrishna Bhat
Prof Bhat joined the University of Venda as a full Professor on the 1st July 2009. He championed the introduction of Plant Systematics at 3rd year level and at Honours level which he taught. Besides the two modules which he developed, during his time at the University of Venda he also lectured Diversity of Life at 1st year level with students numbers varying from 400 to 600 per session, Plant Anatomy and Morphology at 2nd year level and Research Methodology at Honours level. He retired at the end of 2009 in December.
He was immediately thereafter appointed on a three year post-retirement contract. Just prior to the time of his death, Professor Bhat was serving his second three year post-retirement contract.
The department will remember him by his trademark slogans such as “waste not want not”. He taught many of us to save the resources that we were not to use at any particular point in time for future use or for other needy people. His other famous slogan was, “know your limits before you fly high”. He would explain it by saying when you spend, do it considering your budget to avoid over-spending. Another of his slogans, though not quoted verbatim, was that people will tend to celebrate with you when you are rich and over-spend to please them and will at all cost avoid you when you become penniless.
Professor Bhat was an economic botanist at heart. He introduced us to a number of foods that are being under-utilized, for instance he would use raw green bananas to prepare chips similar to Simba chips that we buy from supermarkets. During his life time he spent time in his rich small garden where he grew fruits and vegetables that he used to share with his colleagues in and outside of the Department of Botany. We will also remember him by the way he encouraged people in and outside the University of Venda to reduce the consumption of meat in their diet. He would very often say to us that it is healthier to eat vegetables than to eat meat.
It is worth noting that before his encounter with the Department of Botany at the University of Venda, the publication track record in the department was quite low but his arrival in the department saw it improving its research publication output in accredited journals. Production of MSc students in the Botany Department also improved; that was because of his willingness and readiness to assist all staff members within and outside the department with supervision of students at that level.
Professor Bhat was always willing to disburse his funds for charity. He very often reminded our community engagement directorate to invite him every time when there was to be a visit to institutions where there was need for assistance in any form; he would make sure that he contributed significant amounts of money for the sake of the needy. Prof Bhat assisted needy students financially whenever he could.
Professor Bhat passed away on Sunday the 05th January 2014 after a short illness.
Obituary of Kathleen Dixon Gordon-Gray (née Huntley) – Kath
Born 24th January 1918, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
“…she seemed to embody the true spirit of academic integrity, and this gave her an unassuming and modest grace that is rare and precious indeed”
Kathleen Dixon Gordon-Gray (née Huntley) was born on 24th January, 1918 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and died there on 13th January, 2012. She was educated at the Girls’ High School and the Natal University College of the University of South Africa, Pietermaritzburg which in 1949, together with the later-established Durban campuses of NUC became the University of Natal. For her Bachelor’s degree in 1937 she offered Botany and Chemistry as major subjects, with Physics and Zoology as ancillaries. Childhood visits to an aunt, who lived on a farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains had kindled her life-long interest in plants. In 1939 she was awarded a M.Sc. degree in Botany, followed in 1959 by a Ph.D.
From 1940 to 1945 she taught Biology at the Girls’ Collegiate School. In 1946 she was appointed as Herbarium Assistant and then, in 1951, after the death of the then Senior Lecturer, Dr Beryl Fisher, she was appointed Lecturer in the Department of Botany at the University of Natal. From 1967 to 1976 she held the post of Senior Lecturer and from 1977 until her retirement in 1978 was Associate Professor. Under the South African legal system retirement at the age of 60 was obligatory for women employed in state-funded or partly state-funded institutions.
Until about 1965 she was able to undertake fieldwork and collected approximately 4000 specimens which are lodged in South African Herbaria, mainly in NU with replicates in GRA, NH and PRE. A fall when she was four years old had caused an impacted femur which was neither diagnosed nor treated at the time and which in later years severely restricted her physical mobility. She never lacked for material with which to work, however, as her needs were willingly supplied by fellow botanists, students and friends.
After her enforced retirement, Kath, as she was known to her friends, continued her research and recorded some of her detailed knowledge of the flora of Natal and adjacent areas. This culminated in the publication of “Cyperaceae of Natal” in 1995. Up until a few days before her death she was still engaged, in collaboration with other botanists, notably Dr. Jane Browning, a taxonomist, and Mr. C.J. (“Roddy”) Ward, an ecologist, in the preparation of joint articles for publication.
She was awarded the Senior (Silver) Medal of the South African Association of Botanists in 1998 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to Botanical Science in South Africa. Her major publications up to that time concerned the taxonomy of Cyperaceae, Poaceae, Acacia and Cassia although her interests and expertise extended into many vascular plant families and several fields, notably Palaeobotany.
In response to notification of her death, many former colleagues, former students and friends have sent letters expressing their esteem for a much respected, greatly admired and much loved woman. Unfortunately it is not feasible to reproduce all the letters here.
A former Head of the Botany Department, Professor Chris Bornman, wrote: “Kath Gordon-Gray was not only a meticulous scientist but she was a warm-hearted and sympathetic colleague who always had a welcoming space in her study which was usually crammed to capacity with botanical specimens, reprints and papers in preparation. For me, among her outstanding contributions was the work that she, Eddie van Dijk and W. S. Lacey did on the Glossopteris flora from Natal, first published in 1974 in the South African Journal of Science and later in other journals such as Science and Palaeobotanist, confirming that the rocks from the Mooi River area containing these 235-million-year-old fossils were once part of the great southern continent of Gondwana”.
What is obvious when scrutinizing the messages now being received from all over the world, are both the great respect for Kath as a scientist, felt by all who knew her work, and in addition, the love and admiration of those who knew her personally, for a warm, caring and generous woman.
To those who are fortunate to be numbered among her former students she provided sound theoretical and practical training in some of the fundamentals of taxonomy such as principles of nomenclature, phylogeny, morphogenesis, breeding systems, the population dynamics etc. of living organisms. Her enthusiasm for her chosen discipline was infectious and induced many of her students to embrace careers in the biological sciences. After all, what could be more fun than participation in the study of life itself, or “The Greatest Show on Earth” as Dawkins (2009) so aptly designated it? So great was her enthusiasm for plant taxonomy that when she retired she donated a sum of money to the Department of Botany to provide a prize each year to the most promising student of Biosystematics.
Although most of her more-recent publications dealt with various aspects of Cyperology, to characterize her solely as a Cyperologist is to underestimate her. Hers was a formidable intellect, fuelled by insatiable curiosity, acute powers of observation and finely-honed analytical skills. She certainly did not limit the application of her skills to a single group of plants. Generations of students, laymen and professional botanists owe much to her for innumerable plant identifications which she ungrudgingly undertook on their behalf.
She was very shrewd in her assessment of people’s capabilities and demanded their best from her students. If a student did not produce work of an acceptable standard she did not hesitate to reprimand him/her. Understandably she expected of others what she expected of herself — the best they could deliver. She was intolerant, and rightly so, of sloppy work, superficial observation and shallow reasoning.
To all those of her students who “made it” in their professions she was and will continue to be, an inspiration. All who knew her have been enriched by her life. May the Elysian Fields provide more sedges than asphodel for her enjoyment. vale Kath.
Kathleen Gordon-Gray was predeceased by her husband, Dr Claude Gordon Gordon-Gray, a senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Natal who had been engaged in research on the alkaloids in the genus Senecio in South Africa, and is survived by their daughter Celia Gordon-Gray to whom we offer sincere condolences.
With gratitude to many people, particularly Jane Browning, Roddy Ward and Christina Potgieter for some of the information.
Copyright © 2012 Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.