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South African division of International Academy of Pathology - A historical resume

During the late 1950s the need for South Africa to have a National Pathology Group was recognised but, because of the high cost of travel between the centres where academic pathology was practised, this objective could not readily be achieved. The pathologists in Johannesburg and Pretoria formed a regional association called the Transvaal Society of Pathologists who met regularly in the two centres while Cape Town and Stellenbosch University laboratory scientists formed a local Experimental Biology Group that went beyond the realms of pathology and so provided a larger number of members to enhance participation at their meetings.

Under the leadership of Professor Basil James Pavey Becker (affectionately called Bunny Becker), head of Anatomical Pathology at South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) and Witwaterstand University, while he was chairman of the Transvaal Society of Pathology and with the support of professors in then existing pathology departments at Pretoria University, Cape Town University and University of Natal, an inaugural meeting was called in the Nurses’ Home at the National Hospital in Bloemfontein during the morning of 6 August 1960. There were 34 delegates, 33 South Africans (3 ladies) and one British visitor. They agreed upon the formation of the South African Society of Pathologists (SASP) and prepared a working constitution. That afternoon ten multi-disciplinary papers were read. The delegates had all motored to and from Bloemfontein and, because of the need for self-funding the cost of travel and accommodation, it was decided that future congresses would all be held in Bloemfontein. However, after three such congresses, the work involved in making the annual arrangement by Dr Neser, the solitary pathologist in Bloemfontein and member of the society, and an improved provision of funding from various sources for the attendance of medical congresses, it was decided that the venue for the annual congress should rotate sequentially among the centres that have Medical Faculties.

At the time of the formation of the SASP there was only one pathology discipline on the registry of specialities of the South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC). There was no College of Pathologists anywhere in the British Commonwealth and all pathologists had a general training that covered all aspects of Morbid Anatomy, Surgical Pathology, Bacteriology, Parasitology, Virology, Mycology, Immunology, Chemical Pathology, Endocrinology, Haematology and Forensic Pathology. The total number of medical practitioners and scientists practising in laboratory medicine was small and with this being the only national organization of pathologists that also included non-medically qualified scientists in its membership, SASP was called upon to represent laboratory based professionals on a wide spectrum of issues.

The initial objectives of the society were to “advance pathology and to facilitate contact between those interested in pathology and related subjects”. Recognizing that pathology, in its broadest sense, is the foundation on which the whole edifice of health care service and research rests, the shortage of pathologists in the country was then and still is a matter for concern. Initially, there were problems with recruitment and while this was being resolved, a significant exodus of our best, well trained young pathologists to affluent countries occurred. The untimely death of Professor Bunny Becker, the first president of SASP, on 8 December 1966 retarded the growth of pathology but distinguished and sometimes eccentric characters gradually emerged and took up the cudgels.


In 1962 in Zurich, Switzerland, the society became affiliated to the International Council of Societies of Pathology and was there represented by Professor James Murray of Johannesburg, who was to become the third president of SASP in 1968. In 1966 SASP became affiliated to the International Academy of Pathology and shortly thereafter Professor James Murray was appointed as a vice-president of the Academy and member of its executive committee. Professors Cornelius J Uys, Ronald O C Kaschula and Martin Hale have subsequently held this office in the International Academy.

On the local national scene regular annual congresses have been held and the number and quality of presentations have progressively increased. By inviting and sponsoring selected personalities to participate in our congresses we have fostered contact with overseas experts and their participation in educational activities that enhances the practice of pathology and all forms of laboratory based medicine in our region. Brochures of congress proceedings, together with trade exhibits, have been a feature of the meetings since 1968.

The society avoided being involved in national politics, but has had to represent the profession in organizations such as the Standing Committee on Education, National Laboratory Service Committee, Advisory to SAMDC on the redefining of pathology specialities, duration and format of training for pathologists, medical natural scientists and technologists, as well as for forensic and dental pathology.

The old SASP had a number of distinguished and loveable characters who, in different ways, influenced the practice of laboratory medicine. Among these are: Professor James Thomson of Cape Town who made his congress presentations without photographs but instead made picturesque drawings on a black chalkboard. Professor James Gear, an internationally renowned virologist from Johannesburg, who had diverse insights and knowledge well beyond his speciality. Dr Shirley Siew, also from Johannesburg, although a refugee from Russia, developed an interest and skill in electron microscopy when this was still in its infancy. Professor Francois Retief, a haematologist who moved around South Africa in various work situations but regularly made scientific presentations in Afrikaans and who encouraged the development of scientific terminology for the language. Dr Bob McCully, a veterinary pathologist from USA, with an uncanny sense of humour, who was able to stimulate interest in veterinary pathology that went as far as bilharziasis in the hippopotamus.

Over the years the society was progressively forced to examine itself and its stance in the South African socio-political situation. Much of this was initiated by overseas visitors who were increasingly only willing to come to South Africa if particular conditions pertaining to our situation were met. However, the changes for the society to increasingly reflect the spectrum of the country’s racial and ethnic mix was already occurring in the training and recruiting of pathologists and laboratory scientists into academia and to Society Membership from all ethnic, racial and cultural groups.

During 1986 and 1987 the society made a significant change to its constitution as the constituent disciplines had meanwhile grown to be so large that they had formed their own organizational structures that had to function independently of SASP. Under the leadership of the then presidents, Professors Frans Taljaard (of Stellenbosch) and Anton Heynes (of Bloemfontein), the society became a federation of four independent professional groupings, namely: SA Division of International Academy of Pathology for Anatomical Pathologists; SA Association of Clinical Biochemists for Chemical Pathologists and Biochemists; SA Society for Haematology; SA Society of Medical Microbiology and Virology.

From that time the collective membership of the Federation has grown considerably. During October 1995 in Auckland, New Zealand, FSASP was admitted to membership of the World Association of Societies of Pathology with Professor ROC Kaschula representing South Africa. At that time FSASP was asked to consider being involved in and possibly driving the development of pathology and the broader aspects of laboratory medicine in all developing countries but especially in Africa. Several of our longstanding senior members, including Professors Kaschula, Vermaak, van den Ende and Tiltman, soon became members of the Association of Pathologists from East, Central and Southern Africa and participated in collaborative research, teaching activities and the examination and certification of pathologists in Africa. Since 1990 FSASP has increasingly sponsored and encouraged colleagues from Central and East Africa to participate in local congresses and training courses. The theme for the 1997 congress was appropriately labelled “Outreach into Africa” and portrayed a new direction for the thrust of the Federation’s activities. The South African Division of IAP, together with the British Division, has continued to drive the development of pathology in East and Central Africa. In spite of the will to continue the process our membership became static and briefly fell as a result of severe financial downgrading of academic laboratory medicine. However, during the past three years the recently formed National Health Laboratory Service has taken a more supportive attitude to developing research and training activities for laboratory scientists. It is hoped that the Division will again flourish while also serving as a catalyst to advance all aspects of laboratory medicine on our continent that has not yet hosted an international congress of the IAP.

Ronald OC KASCHULA June 2006