Reunion roundup

Reunions held in 2005: Class of 1955

15 - 17 December 2005

A summary by François Retief and Lionel Opie


Neville Becker, Johannes (Blom) Blomerus, Ike Brajtman, André Brink, Stefanie Brink, Sybil Chait, Morag Chisholm, Sandy Collie, John Coxon, Rienk Duursma, Pitt Fennell, Hillel Goodman, Berthold Hellberg, Peter Le Roux, Sol Lewitton, Malcolm McKenzie, Aubrey Michalowsky, Lionel Opie, François Retief, Wynne Rigal, Isidore Spector, Daniel (Mac) van der Merwe, Dirk van Velden, Bu ddy Voortman, Tertius Weich, Leon Weintrob

(Click on the image to see a large version.)

Academic Meeting Programme

  1. The Wight Witch - Morag Chisholm
  2. Sea Fever - Isidore Spector
  3. Keeping Old Body Functioning - Wynne Rigal
  4. Never Too Late to Mend the Heart - Lionel Opie
  5. Antarctic Expedition Medicine - Buddy Voortman
  6. UCT John Hunter & Race - Pitt Fennell
  7. The Old Days - Aubrey Michalowsky
  8. Why Were the Greeks Afraid of Beans? - François Retief

Mor ag Wright nee Chisholm

Read a delightful reminiscence by Morag Chisholm.


We met in Cape Town in mid-December at a vastly changed Medical School, now called the Faculty of Health Sciences. Although only 26 of the original class of 9 3 were actually present, the convivial atmosphere made it seem that many more were there.

Thursday, 15 Dec 2005

First contact was by way of a pleasant informal session on the ground floor of the Barnard Fuller building. Refreshments were served and interesting UCT souvenir s were on sale. Joan Tuff welcomed all on arrival. The first reaction of most was probably horror at what Father Time had done to the fine folks of 1955. But Sybil Chait's wise comment soon proved true: after a short chat it was quite wonderful to find that deep inside people had not changed. Buddy Voortman was as boisterous as ever. François Retief's winning way was still winning, as was Wynne Rigal's, Isaac Brajtman still had his infectious laugh, and Pitt Fennell was always ready to question and enquire.

On a tour of the Learning Centre (where Anatomy used to be), all decorated with art work, it immediately became very obvious that the old Medical School had radically changed in 50 years. Not only physically but especially as far as the syllabus and educational program and ethic was concerned. The interesting guide (Graham Louw, a lecturer in Anatomy) was dressed very informally in T-shirt and slacks. He briefed us confidently and in an easy relaxed manner on the essentials of the curriculum, based on integrated problem-based teaching, audio-visual lectures, group discussions and computer-based learning. The group had many queries and the guide had a difficult time fielding searching questions on the proven efficacy and cost-effectiveness of this "new" way of training doctors. Was there any evidence that their end-product was comparable to the quality stuff of 1955? (Just look at us!)

The next visit was to the very modern IIDMM (this we found out stands for Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine) building, where its role and function and its state of the art molecular technology and research were all able to dazzle us. Again there was much general interest and particularly in the practical application of this research in fields like AIDS and TB.

We then moved to the "new" Groote Schuur Hospital where Lionel Opie showed us around the Chris Barnard Cardiothoracic Surgery ward and offices which still breathed the presence of Chris Barnard. But the old wards we knew had been revolutionized, now being a shining example of what can be done by a University Professor (Professor Peter Zilla, Professor of Cardiac Surgery) eliciting from enlightened companies (Medtronics and others) enough financial support to create a ward and wing as good as or actually even better than anything found in the private sector. The offices of these cardiac surgeons had sweeping views over Table Bay and all the built in electronics required. Modern township art hung on the walls of the elegant reception room. The wards had likewise been redesigned to have no more than 6-8 beds per ward, there was a comfortable room for visitors, and a very well thought out Nurses room for tea and relaxation (nobody ever thinks that nurses need somewhere to rest). The walls of the corridor were covered with huge mural photographs of Chris Barnard, several from his early days as a physician working with TB meningitis at the Somerset Hospital. Most of us never got to know who the bearded man on the boat with Chris was (he was Fidel Castro). The rest of the "new" GSH was of course quite different and an experience for many of us - daunting and impersonal in its enormity, compared with "our" GSH which seemed quite large at the time.

After an enjoyable finger lunch in the Tafelberg Room (E floor), some of us visited the historic surgical theatres (now a museum) where the first heart transplant had been performed. After 35 years everything still speaks impressively of the simple efficiency which characterized that academic endeavour.


1955 reunion
1955 reunion

The Dean's Welcome cocktail party was held in the IDMM building at 18h00, also attended by the Class of 1965, on their 40th reunion. Cocktail parties were once described in a Cathartic of the 50s as "those half lit rooms, full of half lit people", but this one was quite a pleasant experience. Many wives were present to liven up the conversations, and it was a bonus to meet some of the greats who qualified 10 years after us. The Deputy Dean, David Dent, was there to welcome us and made a good impression, mixing with the crowd. The Acting Dean, Gonda Perez, arrived later and made a welcoming speech in which we were assured that the students of to day would make us proud of our Alma Mater. The Class of 1965 then presented her with a historic document after which representatives of the two class reunions thanked the University, for having us. François Retief spoke for our group on extraordinary short notice, Lionel Opie having been exhausted by the efforts of guiding the class through the hospital!


1955 reunion
1955 reunion


1955 reunion
1955 reunion

The next day at 8h45, the Academic Meeting on the 5th floor, Chris Barnard Building, was a resounding success. 8 Papers were read which covered a remarkably wide field of interest, including several papers on relevant medical topics (such as self-help for the heart by Lionel and for the skeleton by Wynn), life stories (Morag Chisholm showed what a woman can do raising a large family while being an academic front runner), while Buddy Voortman took us on a trip to the Antarctic, There were also other interesting topics: a controversial overview of SA's socio-economic problems, collection of postcards of historic hospitals as a novel hobby, sickle cell anaemia, and then François took us into a vignette from the medicine of antiquity. Lively discussions indicated the group's interest and approval of the format. This type of presentation is certainly a "must" for such meetings.

The Gala Dinner at the historic Alphen Hotel in Constantia was another high-light. During pre-dinner drinks one could admire the architecture and paintings from the 18th century. A class photo was taken, and we sat down for dinner. Proceedings were started by Lionel Opie as Master of Ceremonies, on a solemn note when we were asked to stand in order to pay homage to our deceased classmates. The names of between 18 and 25 deceased classmates were then read out. André Brink, in a wheel chair, received a special round of applause for his efforts in being present. Although there was consensus that the menu was clearly not quite up to standard, the wine was fine and nothing deterred us from having a very good time. Lionel opened the floor for general discussion and there was no looking back. First we had critical comments expressing displeasure with the ethnic implications of one of the morning's talks, then the flood gates opened. In brief we dwelt on the wonderful time we had in the 50s, and by implication what a "first class" class we were. We were reminded of so many memorable incidents from the past - of well known stories, of new stories, of half remembered incidents, semi-libellous anecdotes and quite improbable reminiscences, all beautifully embellished in our memories! It all went on to midnight, and it is not surprising that some people got hopelessly lost on the way back. But the devil looks after his own, it is said, and all eventually reached home safely.

Saturday, 17 Dec 2005

The next day was the farewell lunch at Kirstenbosch, all of us dogmatically confirming that we would all be present at the 55th anniversary but none of us knowing which of us just won't be there to share in that future event. So we came to the end of a wonderful but potentially also an inherently sad event. But Lionel has just heard of a man of 97 who has just completed his MA degree at a British university, so who knows what's to come?

Brock and Frankie

The unique privilege of our generation of medical students was to be taught by two of the most outstanding Professors of Medicine, Professor John Brock and Professor Frank Foreman. Frankie Foreman had the outstanding talent for personal contact and in-depth commitment of time to each patient. To him each patient was a treasure chest, to be valued and explored with sympathy but with scientific exactitude to get the true history. He would come back to the wards in the afternoons to spend several hours with a particularly puzzling patient. He would be gentle with his students. He was seldom dogmatic. Once in the E-floor lecture room, in reply to a student who was way off the mark, was the famous reply: "Well, that answer is sufficiently incorrect to be wrong".

Professor John Brock was the perfect complementary person. He saw the big picture. Coming from Oxford and Cambridge at the age of 33 to the Chair of Practice of Medicine, he brought with him the vision of outstanding research and increasing contact with international medicine. Under his aegis, and with Bronte-Stewart, the Department made major contributions to the early links between cholesterol, dietary fat and coronary disease. He did not limit himself to the diseases of the affluent. His research in collaboration with the World Health Organization on kwashiorkor was equally significant and probably saved more lives. In his lectures to us, he also gave the broad picture. He was one of the first to emphasise the importance of psychosomatic causation of disease, with particular reference to duodenal ulcer which, then, was a common disease. He was also among the first to advance the idea of "nutrition perfection" leading to optimal health. It was in his honour that the Ciba Foundation of London convened selected nutritionists to debate "Diet and Bodily Constitution" in 1964. Thus he by actively promoting research at UCT, he gave us a look into the future.

Morag Wright nee Chisholm: Memoirs of a Mediocre Medical Student: 1950 - 1955

I was good at Maths, Latin and English- good enough to get a 1st class Matric - but not particularly good at Science. Even if the curriculum and teaching of Science at my Girls High School had been good - which they were not.

First Year would have been a struggle, up against the boys in schools where double science subjects were taught and Rhodes Scholarships were on the cards. I was fortunate though: hard work and the discipline imposed by a close friend in his final year at Medical School saw me through the year. Nose to the grindstone all the way and I passed into Second Year. Transfer from the UCT campus to the Medical School was exciting. Anatomy - four students per cadaver for total dissection-with a viva to follow every week or so kept the subject moving along. I never really enjoyed it; that I can't remember which are my hamstrings and which are my quads fifty years on, is irrelevant.

Physiology was another matter. I get lost going around a traffic circle; traveling through the human body was just as bad. The optic tracts were a nightmare. My social life on the other hand was a dream. Lots of nice young men kept asking me for dates. There would always be time to put my head down into Physiology ... possibly next week? Unfortunately, there wasn't and two weeks before the exams found me sleeping on the floor in Women's Res, smoking cigarettes drinking endless cups of coffee while I spotted, crammed questions. The bad news is I failed; the good news is that I never smoked again.

In a 'borderline viva', I was grilled for 10 minutes on the optic tracts. I failed (deservedly) but was given a supplementary examination in February. My father was disgusted with me and introduced me to visitors as "my daughter Morag who has just failed 2nd Year Medicine". I couldn't face my books so took a Christmas job. I ended the year with a party to which I invited a certain Ralph Wright, one year ahead of me and an occasional escort. He offered to help me with my supp. by giving tutorials and vivas for the next six weeks. It worked. I worked. I passed.

Third Year - was mainly Pathology (morbid Anatomy). I hated post mortems; the first one I watched was on a young man who had died from Hodgkin's disease. Two months before the end of the year a notice was posted of those who had not attended enough PM's to get their DP to sit the exam. For once I was top of the list.

Help was at hand once more. With my personal tutor Ralph Wright, to whom I was now engaged, and with my nose to the grindstone once again, I got through. We were married in the long vacation and spent our honeymoon at a mission hospital in Zululand.

For the first time, I was ahead of the game. Not many in my class had caught babies, drawn blood, wandered freely through a 300 bed hospital taking histories, examining patients, extracting teeth, sewing up ears. We had a great time.

Fourth Year and onwards was relatively easy. Together we had peace and time for work - lots of it. Why then did we want a baby ... we already had lots of budgies.

"You are too young, mad" were common remarks. There was a one-month window in which, were we lucky, we might slot this young person into our lives. One month was all we needed.

Fifth Year saw me heading into Specials where, not surprisingly, I showed an aptitude for Paediatrics. We bought a small house right next to the Medical School so I could pop back and forth during the day to care for our daughter. We didn't have or need any social life. Transition to my Final Year was painless. Ralph by now was doing house jobs at Groote Schuur - Paediatrics and O & G; a good choice as it turned out when we took ourselves back to the Mission Hospital for my house job.


Looking back on the six years, I remember the difficulties of the first three years and the pleasure and interest of the three clinical years. Despite our mediocrity as students but undoubtedly due to motivation and a great capacity for hard work, Ralph ended up as Professor of Medicine and I as Senior Lecturer in Haematology at the new Medical School at Southampton. The innovative curriculum there offered an integrated systems course with patient contact in the first year ... in my view, the only way to make the long years of a six year course truly enjoyable.