Owen A M Lewis (1931–2022): Distinguished teacher, excellent supervisor and UCT Fellow

30 May 2022 | Words William Stock. Photo Supplied.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) community is mourning the passing of Professor Owen Alfred Manson Lewis, a plant physiologist and biochemist who headed the former Botany department and the School of Biology until his early retirement in 1992.

Professor Lewis was born in Durban in 1931. After matriculating he studied Botany at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) where he obtained a BSc, BSc(Hons) and MSc. Owen was then awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his PhD studies at the University of London. He returned to South Africa where he taught plant physiology at the University of Natal and then the University of Durban Westville. In 1972 he was appointed Harry Bolus Professor and the head of the Botany Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He was the only remaining permanent head of a department at UCT when he retired in 1992. Many shoddily clad botanists will remember that he definitely preferred staff and students to wear shoes in the department! In addition to his departmental responsibilities, Owen spent 10 years as warden of then Smuts Hall, a role that he relished.

Distinguished teacher

Owen enjoyed the theatrics of large class undergraduate teaching. Many a first-year biology student has been on a “snorkelling journey” through the cell where he described all the organelles and their characteristics. You were never to refer to a mitochondrion as round, oval or egg-shaped because he insisted they are cigar-shaped.


“In his latter years he would take his pet parrot [to lectures] with him and feed it peanuts.”

Owen also lectured plant physiology at the third-year level where his passion for plant nitrogen metabolism and photosynthesis were evident. He always wore a tie and white laboratory coat to lectures and in the latter years he would take his pet parrot with him and feed it peanuts while it sat on his shoulder. Owen’s excellent teaching resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Teacher Award in 1985.

Owen’s main research area was plant nitrogen metabolism. When he arrived at UCT, he brought his beloved Beckman Amino Acid Analyser (that he nursed until his retirement) and a Statron Stable Isotope Analyser with him which were installed in the laboratory behind his office. He focused his efforts on determining the location within the plant (leaf or root and organelles involved) and pathways by which inorganic nitrogen was assimilated by plants. Later in his career his focus shifted to how nitrogen availability, salinity and environmental factors influenced plant carbon assimilation. Most of the 19 PhD and MSc students supervised by him contributed to these research interests. He was an excellent supervisor, making himself available for consultation and involving himself in the lab work, data processing and writing, but also managing his students through regular meetings. Owen produced about 70 scientific research publications but his pride and joy was his book, with a bright green cover, in the Studies in Biology (no. 166) series entitled Plants and Nitrogen.

UCT Fellow and internationally recognised researcher

During his career Owen received many accolades and awards for his contributions to the plant sciences. He was a Fellow of the University of Cape Town before his retirement upon which he became a Life Fellow of UCT, Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, Fellow of Ben-Gurion University and a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. In 1996 he was awarded the South African Association of Botanists Senior Medal. He was also an active contributor to scientific societies, including the Royal Society of South Africa, a founding member of the South African Association of Botanists and was on the board of the National Botanic Gardens. He also served on many grant funding bodies including the CSIR and the FRD, while reviewing grant proposals and research papers from funding agencies around the world. At a more grassroots level, he spent many years on the council of the Botanical Society of South Africa and had been the chair of the council and, more recently, the president of that society.

A fantastic host and terrific storyteller

Owen and his wife, Jennifer (daughter of long-time SACS headmaster Robin Whiteford), were fantastic and kind hosts. Each year the Botany department Christmas party was held at then Smuts Hall. This annual celebration was the highlight for the crop of that year’s honours students who received their grades that evening.


“Owen was a proper, if slightly eccentric, gentleman.”

At more personal gatherings they were terrific storytellers with very amusing accounts of their travels in the Greek Isles and the Middle East. They both loved to travel and undertook many cruises together. Owen was a proper, if slightly eccentric, gentleman on all occasions and his fine sense of humour and love of performance made him an excellent master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker. He crafted his presentations, be they conference presentations, lectures or after dinner speeches, with care and precision. When called upon, his impromptu speeches were also wonderfully appropriate and witty.

Owen is survived by his children, Michael and Rosemary, and their families, but also by many former students and colleagues who remember him with affection.

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