In memoriam: JC (Kay) de Villiers, 7 March 1928 – 5 June 2018

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JC (Kay) de Villiers (Foto: Jaco Marais Publieke domein, Wikipedia)

Jacquez Charl (Kay) de Villiers was born as the third child to Carel van der Merwe de Villiers and Susanna Johanna Joubert on 7 March 1928 in Klerksdorp, Western Transvaal. He died peacefully in Cape Town on Tuesday 5 June 2018. He was a leading South African neurosurgeon and emeritus professor of neurosurgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT). This was his alma mater from which he graduated in medicine. Later, he studied neurosurgery under Sir Wyllie McKissock at the University College Hospital in London. De Villiers became head of the department of neurosurgery at UCT in 1970 and associate professor in 1972. In 1976, he was appointed to the Helen and Morris Mauerberger Chair of Neurosurgery at UCT, being the inaugural appointee to this post. He received many awards from scientific societies and organisations from across the world, including two honorary doctorate degrees. His magnum opus, Healers, helpers and hospitals – A history of military medicine in the Anglo-Boer War: Volumes I and II (Protea, 2009), won him the UCT Book Award for 2011, of which it was said: “The fields of history and medicine converge in the 2011 UCT Book Award winner, Healers, helpers and hospitals – A history of military medicine in the Anglo-Boer War.” In 1952, he married Christina Meta Botha, who predeceased him in 1967. He subsequently married Jeanne Marié Erica du Plessis, who predeceased him in 2016. She was, in her own right, a highly qualified medical scientist, and in her later years, she was the medical officer at the Poisons Information Centre located at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Rondebosch. De Villiers is survived by Charl Christian and Elfrida Susan from his first marriage.

Apart from reaching the highest levels of eminence in his field, Kay de Villiers pursued several other interests. On 24 September 1981, together with colleagues, he established the Cape Medical Museum in Green Point. Today, there is the annual JC de Villiers lecture, established in his honour. In 2018, Professor Bongani Mayosi delivered the lecture, entitled, “The influence of early black doctors on society in South Africa,” at the museum. De Villiers’s own lecture, delivered there a few years before, centred on the life of the medical doctor C Louis Leipoldt, although his fascination for him was more for the humanist, the child of missionary parents, than his medical career. De Villiers penned many books other than the already mentioned Healers, helpers and hospitals. His Dwarstrekkers, dwepers en dokters (Protea, 2011), about interesting and eccentric persons, probably reflected much of his own interesting personality.

An interesting side to De Villiers’s career as a neurosurgeon must surely have been the way in which he assessed the personality and former state president, PW Botha. It was in March 1985 when Botha suffered a rupture of a cerebral blood vessel. Apart from immediate family, only some high-ranking officials and ­doctors knew of this. Botha had a suppression of some sensory stimuli, which caused only peripheral vision on his left side. It was De Villiers and neurologist Dr Paul Cluver of UCT who conducted the scans of Botha's brain. It was, in particular, De Villiers who explained in his examination that this specific kind of stroke could be accompanied by psychological disturbances such as temper outbursts. These did not go unnoticed, for instance, in 1987 by the British ambassador, Sir Robin Renwick. He noted that Botha was “prone to furious rages” and that “his ministers were terrified of him”. It was at this stage that De Villiers said that had he been consulted about the potential way forward for Botha, his advice would have been that the president should resign from his post. But Botha was taken from the neurologists and assigned to new practitioners, probably to avoid a debacle in government and to maintain top secrecy on the issue.

Out of all the great accomplishments in De Villiers’s career that reached universal proportions, the historical medical aspects of the South African Anglo-Boer War stand out as some of the supreme achievements of this genius and intellectual giant. The experience of writing about them goes back to 1939, to the time when de Villiers was ten years old. This was some 36 years after the war had ended, and there were still persons around who could relate stories about the war. Ability to work with these sources, as well as a multitude of other primary sources, resulted in a record of an event in time, which will surely remain definitive. De Villiers liked to believe that he held on dearly to Milan Kundera’s statement, “Our remembering and our forgetting are creative processes.” The memory of his mother telling him about the church in Jacobsdal serving as a hospital remained distinct in his mind. At the time, his own idea of what a hospital was, was based on a night spent in one somewhere when he had had his tonsils removed! So, as a person brought up in a Calvinist tradition, it was hard to imagine a church being a hospital. In the 1940s, while it was clear there were military medical histories of that time, there was little or no official documentation about military medicine of wars of the 19th century, which was a strong motivating factor for writing.

Volume I of Healers, helpers and hospitals tells the story of doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners during the South African War. Both the British and Boer medical military organisations are explained in detail, with the challenges that each faced at that time. Fortunately, the memoirs of British medical doctors and nurses, letters, official reports and articles on specific diseases and procedures written by doctors who had worked in South Africa were available for use for De Villiers’s medical research. The same was not true on the Boer side, which made it a challenging experience. Very important contributions were also made through the efforts of neutral countries and organisations such as the Red Cross. In turn, the Boer War exacted a strong influence on Canada, Belgium, Germany, France and Russia, as explained in the book. Volume II deals predominantly with the clinical aspects of military medical care, such as wounds sustained from explosions. De Villiers explained his relating observations at the time of entering medical school at UCT in 1946. Several of the lecturers had been surgeons with the medical services of the South African army in North Africa, and thus were able to recall clinical features of particular war wounds and tell of surgical service in time of war. It was at this time that De Villiers also learnt about some non-surgical diseases, which were not very thoroughly written up in medical journals. In fact, later, when searching for a formal medical history of the South African War, all De Villiers was able to find was a volume on epidemiology of infectious diseases in the British army. This restriction was to be a considerable challenge in the research process.

Generally, acquiring information is a challenge for any researcher, but more so when the event is so far back in time. This was to be the biggest challenge for writing Healers, helpers and hospitals. There was also a measure of good fortune. For instance, the discovery of a medical fact in one of the sources led to a renewed search through other publications for confirmation of this chance finding. From this, what he calls serendipitous, approach, De Villiers learnt a lot about the war that had not yet been formally published. A full review of the book can be sourced at

One of the strong issues that De Villiers was aware of when writing Healers, helpers and hospitals was the sensitive and complex issue of confusing sentiment and divided loyalty, as it existed at the time in the British Cape Colony (where Afrikaners had mixed loyalties and sympathies). Aware of other writers of the Boer War who have written about this – one thinks of C Louis Leipoldt – De Villiers’s thoughts are clearly expressed:

His was a very real issue. Religious belief and sentiment were still universal directive forces in the Boer community, and one principle to which they adhered in particular was loyalty to the sovereign. Even in my youth, I often heard the Biblical injunction quoted: “Then pay Caesar what is due to Caesar and pay God what is due to God.” It is a measure of the callousness of the High Commissioner to the Cape, Sir Alfred Milner, that he, insultingly, could not or would not comprehend this when Boer representatives from the Cape Colony tried to assure him of their loyalty to the Queen. It was not an easy matter for them to rebel. This was a fact that President Kruger failed to appreciate, but President Steyn clearly understood. The most moving demonstration of the problem of divided loyalties can be found in the letters from Dr AM Neethling to his wife, who temporarily returned to her people in Scotland with the children while he remained in the field with the Boers. Later during the war, she and the children returned to Stellenbosch.

Referring to C Louis Leipoldt, the Afrikaans poet would always remain a great delight for Kay de Villiers. I personally met De Villiers “over” Leipoldt, although I had already known him from the early 1990s from the Owl Club in Cape Town. As mentioned elsewhere in this obituary, De Villiers delivered his talk at the medical museum on Leipoldt. My own involvement with Leipoldt is the thesis I wrote on Leipoldt’s The valley trilogy, in part fulfilment of my DPhil degree awarded by the University of Pretoria in 2012. Professor de Villiers greatly assisted me. I was able to telephone him when really difficult questions in the research came up, and he always made sure that I left with two things: firstly, a solution to my problem, and secondly, something relevant and new to think about. On Leipoldt, De Villiers wrote a lot, particularly on his life as a doctor and journalist. However, not surprising was De Villiers’s interest in Leipoldt as a medical journalist. Writing in the South African Medical Journal in the July 2004 edition, De Villiers says:

Considering his lifelong interest in journalism and his practical journalistic experience in England and South Africa, Leipoldt’s editorship of the SAMJ could almost have been predicted, and when this became a reality in January 1927, he was in his element, as he had clearly stated that journalism was his first love. He was also appointed as Organising Secretary of the then Medical Association of South Africa, and it is a mystery how he managed all these responsibilities, as this was also the period during which most of his non-medical writing, the greatest bulk of his literary work, was done. For the next 17 years, as editor of the SAMJ, these two forces in his life, journalism and medicine, were never in open conflict, but which was the dominant one remained unresolved. At heart, Leipoldt was not a scientist and certainly was not single-minded about medicine, which during his term as editor was undergoing a transformation from an empirical clinical science to a laboratory-orientated applied science. The significance of this change was either not appreciated or deliberately ignored by Leipoldt so that he was not able to provide leadership or wise guidance in this field as editor. He seriously misjudged some advances, such as the use of iodised salt in the treatment of endemic goitre and the use of sulphonamides for some infections. Although somewhat shaky when it came to science, his editorials dealing with medico-political problems were often of outstanding quality, probably far in advance of most of his colleagues and certainly beyond the comprehension of most politicians of his time. He consistently opposed attempts to train black doctors to a lower standard than that available for whites, and believed in a unified health care system for all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour, to be run by the government. In 1932, he said: “In South Africa, we have a black population whose interests are so closely related to and whose ill-health is so closely associated with the ill-health of the smaller white and coloured communities that it would be madness on our part to draw up a public health programme purely for the white community. In 50 years, one shudders to contemplate what might be the effects of so one-sided a programme.” The Gluckman report of the late 1940s proposed just this, but was rejected by the government of the time.

Clearly, De Villiers had great empathy for someone such as C Louis Leipoldt facing the difficult task and times that he did when he was editor (inaugural) of the South African Medical Journal, and one almost ventures to say that he took up the call from Leipoldt to be this incredible, internationally acclaimed medical scientist, which Leipoldt was clearly not. Whatever, De Villiers just admired the man for his writing, his being human and his incredible way with literature. Whenever De Villiers spoke on Leipoldt, whether at the Historical Society or in the lectures he gave, he talked about the immense challenges of growing up as the child of missionaries, which was the lot that befell Leipoldt. Leipoldt inherited his bipolar condition from his mother, citing it as a reason for not ever marrying. These, and a great deal more, are issues that I discussed with De Villiers in my research. They brought a much richer knowledge than if I had not had the honour of meeting De Villiers, about that other polymath from South Africa, CLL (Leipoldt). I also worked with De Villiers at the Owl Club of Cape Town, the most defining moment of all being the presentations at the centenary of the South African War (1999), when we held a symposium which he oversaw. I was invited by De Villiers to contribute alongside himself, Professor Rodney Davenport and Mr Piet Westra, among others. My contribution was on the town of Clanwilliam at the time of the war, which was hard to believe could be drawn into the war, for it was geographically so far away – so remote a place. De Villiers conducted the proceedings for the whole evening, tying it all in, declaiming relevant poems and making the event truly special. This is the way he was. He was congenial, but it had to be correct. In this way, one learnt at least two things: whatever you do, do it properly, and secondly, know your place! One can only be immensely grateful to have mentors like Jacquez Charl “Kay” de Villiers. Requiescat in pace, Jacquez Charl de Villiers!

Paul Murray

Rondebosch, 10 June 2018

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