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Development of Science departments

Early years to 1989 (cont.)

Written in in 1989 by PE Spargo

Applied Mathematics | Astronomy | Biochemistry | Botany | Chemistry | Computer Science | Environmental & Geographical Science | Geochemistry | Mathematical Statistics | Mathematics | Microbiology | Mineralogy & Geology | Oceanography | Physics | Zoology

Applied Mathematics

The true founding of the Department was in 1905 when Alexander Brown, a brilliant man trained at Edinburgh and Cambridge, was appointed to teach applied mathematics and physics. Together with Professor Beattie (Physics Department), he worked on the magnetic survey of South African and also on seismography. Later J. Stephen van der Lingen joined the department and was very active in a wide variety of fields such as liquid crystals, ionization and interference photograms. Like so many other UCT scientists both Brown and Van der Lingen became Fellows of the Royal Society of South Africa, the premier learned society in Africa. A subsequent professor, Dennis Parkyn, was interested in satellite dynamics and numerical methods.

The Department gained great impetus when George Ellis was appointed Professor in 1974. An internationally-renowned authority in his main field of Relativistic Cosmology, Professor Ellis founded the very active General Relativity Research Group. The Department is very active in a wide variety of research areas, including the application of the principles of applied mathematics to human problems.


The Astronomy Department was conceived in 1968 by Dr. R.H. Stoy, Directory of the Royal Observatory, Cape Town, and Honorary Professor at UCT.

The Department has made, and continues to make, extensive use of the telescopes and facilities of the South African Astronomical Observatory at Sutherland, some 200km from Cape Town. In doing to it has achieved international recognition, particularly in the study of the rapid variability of stars - including the discovery of a previously unknown class of variable stars by Dr. D.W.Kurtz. Much of the observational work o the Department today involves international collaboration, both with ground-based observatories, and with satellites and space telescopes.


The Department of Biochemistry was established in 1967 under the leadership of Professor C. von Holt. This was the first fully independent department of biochemistry devoted to fundamental research, as before this time biochemistry had been taught and research in the field undertaken in South Africa either in Medical School physiology departments or in departments of agriculture. Since then the Department has gained a wide international reputation for work on the primary structure of a large number of chromosomal proteins. It continues to maintain a very active research programme in various fields in biochemistry.


The Colonial Botanist, Dr. Karl Pappe, was appointed the first Professor of Botany at the South African College in 1858. However, he only acted in a part-time capacity and the college had to wait until 1903 for the appointment of the first full-time Professor of Botany. The man largely responsible for the establishment of this chair was Harry Bolus, a noted amateur botanist who was an expert on South African orchids. Bolus was an enthusiastic supporter of the South African College and on his death left his collection of plant specimens and books to the College. These now form the Bolus Herbarium at UCT, which contains the second largest collection of plant specimens in South Africa.

The first Harry Bolus Professor of Botany was Harold Pearson, who is today perhaps best remembered for his great work in establishing the National Botanic Gardens at Kirstenbosch.

Situated as it is in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but richest of the world's six floral kingdoms, UCT's research in botany tended for many years to be concentrated on systematics. Today the Department's research is heavily concerned with the physiology and ecology of both terrestrial and marine plants.


Modern chemistry developed at UCT during the 1920s and 1930s. Professor W.S. Rapson came to UCT from the laboratory of Sir Robert Robinson in Oxford and brought with him not only the then modern theories of organic chemistry reaction mechanisms but also experimental skills which he applied to the chemistry of natural products with flair and enthusiasm. He later became the first Director of the National Chemical Research Laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

In the 1950s, Professor F.G. Holliman, who had been trained at Cambridge, played a major role in the development of the teaching of biochemistry - later to become a separate department. During this period the Department was noteworthy for its pioneering work in introducing chromatographic analysis and spectroscopy into university chemistry in South Africa.

In the 1960s Professor F.L. Warren further extended the work of the Department by his outstanding work on alkaloids and insect pheronomes. Since then the Department has continued to grow both in numbers of staff and post-graduate students and in output of research. Of the 20 gold medallists of the South African Chemical Institute, seven have been associated with the UCT Chemistry Department.

Computer Science

In 1964 UCT acquired its first computer and Professor Dennis Parkyn, Professor of Applied Mathematics, was appointed Director of the University's computer centre. A Department of Computer Science was only established at UCT in the early 1970s. It has grown steadily and specialised computer laboratories now exist for each course given by the Department and research is being actively pursued in many fields.

Environmental and Geographical Science

A Department of Geography was founded at UCT in 1936 with Professor W.J. Talbot as first professor and only member of staff. As a result of his survey with the then government on South Africa's natural resources, the Department was chosen to research and produce a National Economic Atlas of South Africa.

In 1973 an interdisciplinary School of Environmental Studies was set up at UCT, devoted to post-graduate training and research. This was devoted to post-graduate training and research and existed separately from the Department of Geography. During it's ten years of existence, the School undertook a major study of air pollution in Cape Town as well as conducting detailed studies of human impacts on the estuaries and coasts of the Cape Province.

The Department of Geography and the School of Environmental Studies merged in 1984 to form the present department.At the same time the Environmental Evaluation Unit was formed to undertake environmental impact studies of various planned developments in South Africa. The department is active in research in a variety of fields. The masters degree programme in environmental science is unique in Africa and trains students to co-ordinate and manage multi-disciplinary environmental impact studies.


Geochemistry at UCT started in the 1940s with the classic and monumental studies of Professors F. Walker and A. Poldevaart on the Karoo dolerites. This was followed in the early 1950s by the installation of an optical emission spectrograph, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, for the analysis of rocks and minerals.

In the early 1960s, under Professor L.H. Ahrens, the first holder of the Chamber of Mines Chair of Geochemistry, the then new analytical technique of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy was introduced into the Department. Since that time the Department has been very active in this field and today enjoys a well-earned international reputation.

In 1965 the CSIR Geochemistry Research Unit was founded in the Department, with Professor Ahrens as Director. Research activities expanded rapidly and the production of new and very high quality data on meteorites led to participation in the NASA Apollo Lunar Science Program. Dr A.R. Duncan was appointed as Research Officer to supervise the research into the structure and compostion of the lunar rock samples.

Research now covers an exceptionally wide field, from meteorites and lunar samples through marine sediments and rocks from the mid-ocean islands to estuarine sediments and power station ash.

Mathematical Statistics

Statistics had been taught in the Department of Mathematics for several years before a separate Department of Mathematical Statistics was established in 1965. In the 1960s and 1970s research in the Department concentrated on mulitvariate distribution theory while the 1980s were characterised by the inclusion of a blend of the theoretical developments of mathematical statistics and of the application of statistics in a wide range of disciplines. Much work is being done in development of models for specific applications, e.g. the stock market, the spread of AIDS and the occurrence of droughts and floods.


Francis Guthrie was Professor of Mathematics from 1879 to 1899 and is now remembered for the famous "four colour conjecture", which was only proved after generations of effort by numerous mathematicians. He was followed by Professor Lawrence Crawford who was head of the Department for forty years: 1899-1939. Mathematical research in South Africa and in particular at UCT, can be said to have come of age after 1920 when the first South African students of mathematics to receive training abroad began to return to embark on professional careers in this country. One of the first of these was Stanley Skewes who not only introduced the new mathematical trends to UCT but subsequently became known throughout the world for his original contributions to analytic number theory, and in particular for estimating the first change of the function Pi minus Li.

Professor Laurence Chisholm Young was head of Department for ten years and made outstanding contributions to research in a number of fields such as the theory of generalized surfaces and approximation theory. Professor Sears succeeded him and became known for his many contributions to the theory of differential equations.

Since then, the Department has grown steadily, particularly in numbers of graduate students.


One of the youngest departments in the Faculty of Science at UCT, microbiology has nonetheless become one of the strongest. It grew out of the Microbiology Division of the Department of Botany in 1975. Research specialities in those days were immunology, virology and mycology. The emphasis switched to bacteriology (particularly genetics) and virology. Today the department has a number of extremely active research groups working areas such as genetics and physiology of anaerobic bacteria, the genetics of bacteria involved in the leaching of ores, plant virology, Streptomyces genetics and genetic manipulation in plants.

Mineralogy and Geology

In the 1890's the South African College was situated very close to the Geological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope and it was natural that the latter should be closely associated with the development of geology at the College. Although the department's early reputation was closely involved with first-rate teaching, it soon began to develop an active research programme. During this period geochemistry played a large role in the activities of the department.

The most dynamic phase in the Department's history began with the appointment of Professor Eric Simpson as Head of Department in the mid-1950s. Under his direction, the Marine Geoscience Unit was founded. This attracted a number of scientists of international reputation, Professor Simpson also created the Precambrian Research unit.


From the time of Dr Gilchrist at the turn of the century, South African oceanography was in the hands of biologists and chemists. However, in 1959 Leopoldo Trotti was appointed 'visiting' Professor of Oceanography at UCT. The research which was conducted under his direction was multidisciplinary in nature and almost everyone working in this area was required to go to sea in an 86-ton wooden fishing trawler. The vessel was used as UCT's research vessel until a new, larger vessel was acquired in 1966. During this period the research carried out had a distinctly 'physical flavour' and was concerned with local waves, currents and range action in harbours. An important and far-reaching research cruise of this era was the three-ship Agulhas Current Project of 1969.

In the late 1970s the Institute of Oceanography took the lead in establishing a Research Diving School which, in collaboration with other UCT departments such as Zoology, continues to organise the training and success of scientific diving at UCT.

More recently the department as expanded its horizons to include aspects of atmospheric science in both its research and teaching.


The teaching of physics at UCT goes back to the appointment in 1876 of Professor P.D. Hahn as Professor of "experimental physics and practical chemistry". This was followed by the creation of a chair "applied mathematics and physics" seven years later until, finally in 1903, the creation of a separate chair in applied mathematics led to the establishment of physics as a separate discipline at the South African College.

During its formative years the department was led by Professor J.C. Beattie, later to become first Principal of UCT. He was succeeded by Professor A. Ogg in 1920, who established the firm research tradition which has marked the department ever since. A research highlight of this period was the pioneer work, still much quoted, of Drs. D.J. Malan and B.F.J. Schonland, on the mechanism of lighting.

The appointment of Professor R.W. James in 1937 consolidated and expanded the research tradition. Trained in Sir Lawrence Bragg's laboratory in Manchester, James had been one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography and he established the first research school in South Africa in this field.

Professor James was succeeded in 1957 by Professor W. Schaffer, during whose tenure as head of Department (1957-1971) both staff and student numbers expanded and two new chairs, one in theoretical physics and the other in nuclear physics, were created. One of the early incumbents of the chair of theoretical physics, Professor W.E. Frahn was a man of international reputation and is generally considered to be the father of theoretical physics in South Africa. Today the dual teaching and research tradition continues with active research groups in experimental nuclear physics, laser physics and theoretical particle physics.


The UCT Zoology Department has a long and distinguished history of involvement with the marine environment. In 1907 Professor John Gilchrist was simultaneously appointed Head of the Department and Director of Fisheries. Gilchrist, the first South African scientist to seriously explore the economic potential of fish stocks around our coast, was succeeded by Professor Lancelot Hogben, who had strong interests in physiology. Under his leadership Dr. Zwarenstein developed the urine test for human pregnancy using platana frogs - a test which was subsequently used all over the world.

In 1931 Professor Alan Stephenson was appointed Head of Department and immediately began an intensive survey of the coast of Southern Africa. This work was continued after the Second World War by Professor John Day, who was also active in estuarine research and the taxonomy of polychaetes. Professor Day's monograph of Southern African polychaetes is still accepted as a definitive work and is widely employed all over the world. Professor Day greatly strengthened the marine interests of the Department and with the addition of new Professors, new fields of endeavour were embarked upon. These included the ecology of rocky and sandy shores and the use of computer models and analyses; a great deal of work has also been done on the plough shell Bullia and on the biology of limpets, of which South Africa has a particularly rich array. The Marine Biology Research Institute has grown to be one of the largest in the country and has become world renowned.

Under Professor Gideon Low's headship strong interests in the physiology of terrestrial animals and in the adaptations of organisms to the desert environment have been developed, while Professor Brian Davies has initiated and directed a highly successful Freshwater Research Unit. Associated with the Zoology Department is the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Starting with a single post funded by the Percy Fitzpatrick Trust, this Institute, which is directed by Professor R. Siegfried, has grown rapidly and is today by far the most prestigious ornithological institute in Africa.

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