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Johannes Albertus Myburgh: South Africa’s Towering Surgeon

by Natalie Sifuma
6 July 2021

 

In the eastern region of the Free State Province in South Africa lies Lindley, a small, seemingly nondescript but historic farming town known for its working mill – a feature that would give a visitor an estimate of the town’s age, and history. But that’s not all about Lindley. The town is also known for producing one of South Africa’s most renowned surgeons, Dr Johannes Albertus Myburgh.

 

In the beginning… there was the town. And in 1928, Johannes was born. There exists little detail about Johannes’ family aside from the mention of his father, who worked as a bank manager. This gives a sense of the family’s place in the social stratum at the time – middle to upper class.

 

Johannes spent his formative years in Lindley, then left for Parys – another small town in the Free State, north west of Lindley, to join the Parys School for his secondary education. Even though he was away from home, diligence and discipline were Johannes’s guiding principles.

 

As is said about hard work, it came to bear fruit for the young man who was later admitted into the University of Cape Town to study medicine. It was one thing to get into medical school, and a completely different ball game to keep the momentum going. Nonetheless, Johannes, who by then had acquired the nickname Bert (from Albert), had his eye on the ball, and was determined to stand out.

 

Motivated by his own will, Johannes achieved distinctions in every unit he took throughout his medical course, his only setback being pathology, a state of affairs which disturbed Johannes so much so that after graduation, he spent a year working as a Pathology Registrar. It was an interesting decision and turn of events primarily because Johannes had already decided by then that he wanted to pursue surgery.

 

One may argue that for someone who had consistently excelled, underperforming was not an attribute he wanted hanging over his head. And so Johannes pursued understanding on the causes and effects of diseases. The outcome? Acquiring immense information of pathology that later aided in his clinical and research career.

 

You’ve heard of the saying ‘All work and no play…’.

 

For Bert, when he wasn’t bent over medical books and papers, he was on the rugby field or on the track, running obstacle races – specifically those with hurdles. A perfect balance of dedication to school and sport earned Bert a Rhodes Scholarship to New College in Oxford, where he spent three years from 1952. It was in Oxford that he met and fell in love with a nurse, Teddy, his future wife.

 

Sometime between 1955 and 1956 Bert returned to South Africa to complete his surgical training at Witwatersrand University. This was the entry point into his career.

 

On 25 August 1966, Bert was one of two surgeons leading a renal surgical procedure at Johannesburg General Hospital. He had, in the years leading up to this day, been carrying out research on biliary, pancreatic and renal transplants. His skill and understanding had increased, and it was only a matter of time before he put to practice the acquired expertise.

 

And so the day to perform the first renal transplant in South Africa came. Ready with his team which included American transplant expert Prof Thomas Strazl, the procedure began. It was a demanding process; failure was not an option. But by the end of the long, exhausting day, two recipients had ‘new’ kidneys thanks to Prof Bert and his entire team. This was recorded as the first successful organ transplant in South Africa. Unfortunately, neither recipient survived long term. The uncertainty of renal transplants was seen through this case study, but encouraged more medical experts to find solutions.

 

Undeterred, Prof Bert continued his work and dedication to patients in need of organs for survival. In 1967, he was appointed Professor of Surgery. In his tenure as an educator, Prof Bert left a lasting impact on most of his students, most of whom went on to occupy senior positions at top medical schools and teaching hospitals around the world.

 

Between 1986 and 1989, Prof Bert was President of the College of Medicine of South Africa. And after succeeding in this leadership role, he remained a member of the institution’s examinations and credentials committee for almost two decades. He also served as President of the Transplant Society of South Africa, and of the Surgical Research Society of South Africa.

 

Despite his excellence in medicine, Prof Bert had his shortcomings. For one, he was an avid smoker, a habit which eventually left him with severe breathing problems for years. His fate unfortunately came on 7 April 2010. At 82, Prof Johannes Albert Myburgh died of respiratory complications.

 

Though departed, South Africa’s medical industry hasn’t forgotten Prof Bert, nor the landmark event he was part of – the country’s first organ transplant. According to an article by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Prof Bert is described as “a towering figure in surgery in South Africa, both in academic and clinical spheres.”


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