Memories of Stuart Saunders: a true friend and a great colleague

24 February 2021 | Tribute John Terblanche. Photo University of Cape Town. Read time 4 min.
Emer Prof John Terblanche, Convocation-elected member of UCT Council, Bremner, 6 August 2008
Emer Prof John Terblanche, Convocation-elected member of UCT Council, Bremner, 6 August 2008

Emeritus Professor John Terblanche has been associated with the University of Cape Town (UCT) for most of his life: he commenced his studies here in 1953, was a staff member from 1967 to 2000, and was a Convocation-elected member of UCT Council. He held a number of important offices, including that of chair of the National Health Policy Committee from 2000 to 2006.

Our close association goes back to 1967 and extended to this year.

When I was recruited back to the staff of Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT from the United Kingdom in 1967, Stuart invited me to join him as co-director of the two units he had established: the Liver Clinic and the Liver Research Group. Thus commenced a remarkable collaboration and friendship. Much of this is documented in his autobiography, Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope. I quote one short piece: “A long, close partnership came about, a physician and a surgeon working harmoniously together, both in the clinical area and research.” I must add that this partnership was unique at that time, and the envy of many of our hepatology and other international colleagues.

At the clinical level we spent one afternoon a week seeing outpatients together in the Liver Clinic. We frequently consulted on our respective ward patients, and at times Stuart attended when I was operating on a complex-problem patient. Our clinical contact, although reduced, continued after he assumed duty as vice-chancellor in January 1981. I have published two pictures of him in full operating-room dress, ‘giving me advice’, while I was performing Cape Town’s first human liver transplant during the night of 22/23 October 1983!

Stuart Saunders’ remarkable ability to raise funds is well known. On my return to Cape Town, I was in charge of the large animal surgical laboratory, and we wanted to continue the liver transplant programme I had started in Bristol in a new animal model, the pig. I had all the facilities, but no money for pigs. No problem to Stuart: through contacts, he arranged for us to give talks on the importance of liver transplant research to the local pig breeders. In no time we had sufficient pigs donated to commence the programme. The long term was also no problem: with Stuart’s help, the provincial government obtained a farm and bred the pigs we required – very different from the situation today.

Stuart built a holiday house at Yzerfontein in the early 1960s, which he and his wife generously allowed us to use. We fell in love with what was at that time a quiet, sleepy village – and we also acquired a house there. Thus our respective children grew up and spent their holiday time together, becoming very close. We became proficient at catching crayfish. Due to a grateful patient who was a local, we were shown where the crayfish holes were in the harbour, which we kept a closely guarded secret. Much to the annoyance of many of the holidaying local farmers, we were able to pull out our ring nets filled with large crayfish when they were catching very few. Imagine the picture – the two English-speaking professors from UCT, smoking pipes and looking extremely precarious in a very small dinghy, were being successful, when they – the locals in their fancy boats – were not!

Emeritus Professor John Terblanche

Emeritus Professor of Surgery, UCT

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Dr Stuart Saunders


The University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted an online memorial service for former Vice-Chancellor Dr Stuart Saunders on 24 February. Dr Saunders was a dedicated servant, steward and supporter of UCT. He passed away on Friday morning, 12 February 2021.

Stuart John Saunders was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 28th August 1931. After graduating MBChB with honours in 1953 at the University of Cape Town, he did post-graduate research at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith in London and at Harvard University. He received the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1965 (University of Cape Town). He began his administrative career as the University of Cape Town’s Head of the Department of Medicine (1971-1980) and was co-founder of the university’s Liver Clinic & Liver Research Unit (a field in which he wrote some two hundred articles and co-authored a study that has become a classical reference). He was Vice-Chancellor from January 1981 to August 1996.

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