The University of the Witwatersrand had its roots in the South African School of Mines, established 1896 on Hull Street, Kimberley. 
In 1904, the school transferred to the gold-boom town of Johannesburg as the Transvaal Technical Institute. In 1906 it became the Transvaal University College, and four years later was renamed the South African School of Mines and Technology. The school broadened its scope beyond mining to become in 1920 the University College. Granted university status in 1922, it became the University of the Witwatersrand with Jan H. Hofmeyr the first principal, and its new campus at Milner Park.
Housed in a mud and wood building, the Johannesburg Hospital opened in 1888. South Africans seeking medical training had to travel abroad. In 1916, the Witwatersrand branch of the British Medical Association was formed with plans to begin medical training in Johannesburg. Three years later Scottish-educated Edward Philip Stibbe was appointed first professor of anatomy. The first anatomy hall was a converted horse stable with one cadaver, a blackboard and a coat stand.[i] Stibbe was promoted to dean of the medical school. In 1922, the married Stibbe was seen entering a movie theater in the company of a secretary who worked at the university. The university principal Jan Hofmeyr reacted to the alleged “misconduct” by demanding Stibbe’s resignation. Stibbe returned to Great Britain and passed the FRCS in 1925. In 1930 he published An Introduction to Physical Anthropology and in 1938, became professor of anatomy at King’s College, University of London.2 

Raymond Arthur Dart
(pictured here with the Taung skull) replaced Stibbe as professor of Anatomy. Born in Queensland, Australia in 1893, Dart won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Sydney. After graduation, he studied human neuroanatomy at the University of London. In 1923, he reluctantly headed for Johannesburg. “I hated the idea of uprooting myself from what was then the world’s center of medicine,” he wrote, “to take over the anatomy department of Johannesburg’s new and ill-equipped University of the Witwatersrand.”


[i] C. M. Beaton. The Early Years of the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School and its Students.  South African Journal of Medicine, January 20, 1977: 4(3) pp.113-116.
2 S2A3 Biologic Database of South African Science. 
3 Raymond Dart and Dennis Craig. Adventures with the Missing Link. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957.
Two years later, he had good reason to be pleased with his move, when he received two fossilized skulls unearthed in a mine at Taung. “I knew at a glance that what lay in my hands was no ordinary anthropoidal brain. The skull cavity was three times larger than that of a baboon and considerably bigger than that of an adult chimpanzee, [but] it was not big enough for primitive man.” In his report, submitted to Nature, Dart claimed that the skull was “humanoid” rather than ape-like, and that this early human, named Austalopithecus africanus, “had walked upright, with its hands free for the manipulation of tools and weapons . . . providing clear evidence that Africa was the cradle of man.”

Dart’s claim met a chilly reception among his fellow scientists. He continued his investigations at the Sterkfontein Caves where he unearthed similar skulls, giving credence to his claim that he had discovered the “missing link”. “We know that these erect biped creatures with short snouts and small brains roamed South Africa…Whether you call them apes or man is a matter of definition. Some of these creatures were small. But some almost gigantic.”3   
Appointed dean (1925-1943), Dart’s discoveries brought fame to himself and to the young medical school in Johannesburg.  

The Growing Years

In 1921, George Ritchie Thomson, graduate of the University of Edinburgh, was appointed professor of surgery at the Wits medical school. Oliver K. Williamson FRCP was appointed professor of medicine.4

Eustace Henry Cluver was the first professor of physiology. Later, Cluver served as Secretary of Health of South Africa (1938-40), when he initiated community-based primary-care programs, including the rural Natal Pholela Health Center, headed by Dr. Sidney Kark. In 1952, Cluver published a book on Social Medicine, and in 1959, Public Health in South Africa. Cluver returned to the medical school to serve as dean (1960-62). He sits in the front row center in our 1960 graduation picture.

The first professor of pharmacology was John Mitchell Watt. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh in 1932, Watt wrote The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern Africa. During World War II, he was in charge of medical supplies for the South African armed forces.5   During the 1920s the University added academic posts in ophthalmology, radiology, urology and psychiatry.

Physicians in private practice conducted the clinical teaching at the Johannesburg General and other hospitals. Four students graduated in 1925: Leopold Klein, Benjamin Kuny, Clifford Thomson and Eric Slade and were treated to a dinner at the Trocadero Restaurant. During the 1920s the medical school classes numbered some 30 students a year, rising to around 40 a year in the 1930s. The success of the school encouraged more South Africans to study medicine at home, rather than traveling abroad.

During and soon after World War II class size increased, reaching 216 students in 1947.6  When we began our medical studies there were only sixty black physicians in the whole of South Africa. Medical care was very unevenly distributed. In Johannesburg, one physician served 750 white people, but in rural parts of the country one physician served 30,000 black people.7 During the 1950s more women, black, Indian and Chinese students were admitted to Wits to study medicine. From 1955-1974 the number of students admitted each year hovered around ninety.8

 In 1946, Guy Abercrombie Elliott was appointed professor of medicine and chief physician at the Johannesburg General Hospital. Born in 1905, he graduated from the University of Cape Town. During World War II, Elliott served in the South African Medical Corps. In 1943 he became FRCP(London) and in 1956, was the first president of the S.A. College of Physicians.9 

O.S. Heyns DSc. FRCOG was appointed professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Heyns’s 1959 scientific paper showed that external abdominal decompression “led to a substantial reduction both in time and pain of the first stage of labor.”

William E. Underwood MB BCh (Cantab), FRCS (England), was appointed professor of surgery and chief surgeon at the Johannesburg General Hospital. From 1950-1956, Underwood served as dean of the Wits medical school. In 1956—our anatomy year—Underwood was accused of scientific fraud. Conducting experimental cardiac surgery using dogs, he claimed that the procedure was a success when in fact the dog had died. Underwood instructed his assistant to paint the paws of another dog to resemble the dead dog. When the caper was exposed, Underwood resigned and in 1958 was replaced by Daniel Jacob (Sonny) du Plessis.  Born 1919, a medical graduate of the University of Cape Town, du Plessis served during World War II in North Africa and Italy. He received a Nuffield fellowship to Oxford University and FRCS.10


4  Oliver Williamson was the son of Alexander William Williamson FRS, a noted 19th century English chemist.
5 Watt remained at Wits for 36 years and retired in 1956. We were his last Wits class.
6 In 1947, the BSc class had three exceptional students. In 2002, Sydney Brenner shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine; Philip Tobias was appointed FRS; and Priscilla Kincaid-Smith, a distinguished nephrologist, was the first female professor at the University of Melbourne and the first female chair of the Royal Australian College of Physicians.
7 The Johannesburg Star. 2 December 1954.
8 Since 1975 the Wits medical school class increased to around 200 per year. Rochelle Keene. Our Graduates, 1924-2012. Johannesburg: Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, 2013.
9 Elliott retired from the medical school in 1967, and died in 1975, aged 70 years. 
10 Martin Veller. Department of Surgery, University of Witwatersrand—a brief history. South African Journal of Surgery. Vol.44 No.2.  2 May, 2006, pp.44-51.

Our class had the privilege of hearing professor du Plessis’s lectures, which were models of deep knowledge, clarity and elegance. Du Plessis wrote Principles of Surgery: A New Approach (1968) and Synopsis of Surgical Anatomy (1975). Both books published in Bristol by J. Wright.  He rose to principal of the University of Witwatersrand, serving until his retirement in 1983. “Sonny” du Plessis died in 1999, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Raymond Dart was present front row, center in our 1956 Anatomy class picture. He retired in 1958 after serving the University with distinction for 34 years. Our class can recall the excitement in 1959 when Dart’s star student Phillip Valentine Tobias (pictured here near the close of his life) filled his shoes as professor of anatomy and human biology. 

Born 1925 in Durban, Tobias was only a decade older than most members of our class. At Wits, he completed his BSc (Hons) in 1947. In 1948 he was elected first president of the National Union of South African Students, and graduated MB BCh in 1950. Three years later he was awarded PhD for a thesis entitled Chromosomes, Sex Cells, and Evolution in the Gerbil. Tobias led protests against university apartheid. He advanced his studies in Great Britain and the United States. As head of anatomy, Tobias taught generations of medical students. His research in paleoanthropology took him to the Sterkfontein Caves as well as hunting for fossils the world over. Phillip Tobias FRS published hundreds of scientific articles as well as authoring many books. He died in 2012, aged 86 years.  

All monies raised by the Class of 1960 will help support the Phillip V. Tobias Bursary Fund, established by the Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of the Witwatersrand to support students from under-served communities.

Significant political events occured during our medical school years. The increasing enforcement of racial segregation was countered by the Black Sash movement. The Treason Trial began in 1956; the next year saw the Alexandra Bus Boycott.  In 1959 the Extension of University Education Act closed of Wits medical school to black, Indian and Chinese students. In March 1960 police gun fire killed 69 people in the Sharpeville Massacre. That year, the government declared a state of emergency and banned black political movements.