Forensic pathologist Professor Deon Knobel retired from UCT at the end of last week, drawing to close an association that goes back four decades and over which, he estimates, he worked on over 15 000 cases.
Knobel, head of UCT's Division of Forensic Medicine - until last Friday, of course - and his secretary of 17-and-a-half years, Lorna Blatherwick, both called it a day at the end of April. Sixty-two-year old Blatherwick, who would have retired two years ago, had stayed ON to help Knobel until his retirement. The two were toasted by former and current colleagues at a bash held in their honour at the medical school recently.
A Stellenbosch medical graduate, Knobel joined the State Pathology Laboratory, then based at UCT's Hiddingh campus, in 1964. He, at the time, was juggling two careers - that of government medical officer during the day, and promising opera and Lieder singer at night (he eventually had to forego the latter as the demands of his day job began to encroach on his evenings).
Up to his retirement, Knobel was still involved in medico-legal autopsies as the UCT division has ties with the provincial Department of Health, and all staff in the division are Provincial Administration Western Cape (PAWC) employees per bipartite agreement with UCT. He also continued to give evidence in court and assist public prosecutors. Occasionally, a case even landed Knobel on the front page of national newspapers, as with the death of former first lady Marike de Klerk in 2001.
In addition to his forensic duties, Knobel was also a UCT lecturer of note, his love for his subject earning him a Distinguished Teacher's Award in 2000 (one colleague felt he should have bagged one every year). Professor Nicky Padayachee, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and former UCT student, recalls Knobel's lectures fondly. "Deon was probably the most memorable lecturer I ever had," he noted. "I will never forget his style of teaching, his sense of humour."
A number of years ago, Knobel also, indirectly, had a hand in UCT's HIV/AIDS policy when he and Professor Gordon Isaacs, formerly of the Department of Social Development, vocally and successfully opposed a draft document that called for the testing of new students and staff before admission or appointment.
It is acts like these that endeared him to both staff and students (one of the latter hailed him as "a classic"), noted colleague Dr Denise Lourens, who will be acting as head of the division until a successor is appointed. "He is very passionate about his job - with him, it is everything or nothing, and it is usually everything. He is like a steam train, and we have to hook on and go along. There is no stopping this man."
Knobel, who donated a painting he commissioned for his inauguration, had a few things of his own to say on the night.
"Some of you close to me might feel that I should be very sad, or afraid, or anxious," he began. "I try not to be any of those, and wish to share some of my experiences with you, trusting that it may mean something to you in your lives and in your careers, those of you who have still many years to go."
At the end of his talk, he even had a few winged words of inspiration. "Yes, life is a journey. Enjoy the ride, even, or especially, the steepest speed bumps. Open the iron cage, let the hummingbird of your soul fly free and sing, with passion, your own unique song of joie de vivre."
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