Storehouses of institutional memory

20 November 2018 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 6 min.
12 November 2018 marked 45 years of service for Roberts Samuels, senior laboratory assistant, Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences.
12 November 2018 marked 45 years of service for Roberts Samuels, senior laboratory assistant, Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences.

This year’s 134 long-service awardees for 15, 25, 35 and 45 years have a collective 2 460 years of service and represent a storehouse of institutional memory. Leading the pack with 45 years is Robert Samuels, a senior laboratory assistant in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) honoured Samuels and other stalwarts – 10 staff with 35 years, 22 with 25 years, and 101 with 15 years – at the 2018 UCT Awards on 19 November. This special event saw Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also congratulate recipients of ad hom promotions, the Distinguished Teacher Award and the Alan Pifer Award.

Sporting chance

Sport just happened to be a motivator in Samuels’s decision to join UCT on 12 November 1973. He’d been working in an industrial, shift-driven environment in Ndabeni but the work hours were too restricting for the avid sportsman. He played baseball and rugby, but squash has always been his passion. He still plays in the round robin league at the medical school.

“I came for an interview [at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Physiology] and started the next day,” he recalled. The medical environment he’d joined presented a new challenge.


“Learning to work in the lab with animals [rats and mice used in the practicals for second-year medical students] was quite an experience for me.”

“Learning to work in the lab with animals [rats and mice used in the practicals for second-year medical students] was quite an experience for me – but I enjoyed every bit of it. Those were good times in the lab.”

He also notes how dress codes have changed over the years. When he joined UCT, students wore collars and ties or dresses and pantyhose to lab sessions, under the obligatory lab coats.

“It was all very professional. Now, students come as they are.” But lab coats are still obligatory.

Early riser

Samuels has always been an early riser – perhaps harking back to his shift days. He’s usually in his Falmouth Building office by 06:00.

“I like to arrive early to plan my day.”

An early start also means he is free to play squash at lunchtime.

“You get addicted to playing squash. People say I don’t look my age (64). Then I take out my ID card to show them. It’s my lifestyle. If I’ve had a game, I can go home happy.”

Samuels’s average day provides plenty of variety preparing the labs, glassware and autoclaving material (pressure steam chambers for sterilisation and pasteurisation), and making solutions and media.

When the Faculty of Health Sciences did away with the practical medicals for first- and second-year students in favour of “dry pracs”, Samuels became the assistant in two cancer labs, where he still works: the Blackburn Lab in the Werner Beit Building, and the Leaner and Hendricks Lab in the Falmouth Building.

Memorable characters

He has met and worked with some memorable characters over the years.

“When the heart transplants took place, it was Hamilton Naki,” he said.

“Naki started as a gardener and eventually taught medical students surgical techniques [using pigs]. That was something amazing. We would chat a lot.

“One doctor said, ‘If only Hamilton Naki had papers [qualifications] he could have gone and operated in any big hospital.’ That was because of his knowledge and God-given talent. And now there’s a scholarship named after him. That was quite an eye-opener for us lab assistants.”

There have been many changes in 45 years. People have come and gone, and the faculty has changed shape and size. But the buildings, part of the university’s heritage, have largely retained the same facades, he said. The Wolfson Pavilion now joins the two buildings that make up the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, modernising the outward face of this part of campus.

But the view, up towards Devil’s Peak, is the same, which makes Samuels happy – though he does miss the wildebeest and quaggas that used to roam the slopes.

Evergreen work ethic

He is firm about the evergreen standards of a good work ethic – and this includes the way people treat one another, regardless of their circumstances. Camaraderie in the workplace is important to him.

“It is all about how we treat each other. I’d always take the lead in getting things done. You can’t wait on someone else to do the work. Take pride in what you do.”

His dream is to have his younger daughter, Tara, study business management at UCT in 2019.

“That will be a highlight for me as I’ve worked here all these years.”

He believes in the benefits of living a balanced life: work, play, family and his church. Samuels is pastor of a New Apostolic Church in Silvertown. He and his wife, Catherine, and their children, Simone, Tara and Kyle, are very active in the church.

With retirement at the end of next year (he turns 65 on 29 April), Robert plans to run a small painting company.

“I’m a very busy person, both at UCT and at home. When I retire there won’t be such a thing as sleeping late. I have a built-in clock; you get up and that’s it. Otherwise you deteriorate. Staying active is important for me.”

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