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Biographical entry Myburgh, Johannes Albertus (1928 - 2010)

MB BS Cape Town; MS Witwatersrand; Hon FACS 1983; Hon FRCS 1985; Hon FACP 1989; Hon FRACS 1991; Hon FRCS Edin 1991; Hon MD Free State 1994; Hon DSc Witwatersrand 1996.

31 May 1928
Linley, Free State, South Africa
7 April 2010
General surgeon and Transplant surgeon


Bert Myburgh was professor of surgery at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. A charismatic and talented surgeon, he was, in his time, South Africa's most renowned surgeon. He was highly regarded throughout the surgical world, and especially within the transplant community.

Bert Myburgh was born in the Free State village of Linley, where his father was a bank manager. He matriculated from Parys High School in 1944 at the age of 16 and then became a medical student at the University of Cape Town. Throughout his medical course he achieved distinctions in every subject he undertook, except pathology, and graduated with a gold medal for best student. Perhaps as a result of his failure to get a distinction in pathology, he spent a year as a registrar in pathology after graduation, which stood him in very good stead in his subsequent clinical and research career. At university he was a hurdler and a member of the first rugby 15. No doubt his sporting prowess and his academic performance led to the award of a Rhodes scholarship and he spent three years at New College in Oxford (from 1952 to 1955).

After his time in Oxford, he returned to Witwatersrand University to complete his surgical training. After spending some time on the staff there, he was appointed professor of surgery in 1967 and chief of surgery in 1977. On retirement in 1994, he was appointed an emeritus professor of surgery in his old department.

He was an inspiring teacher and intellectually powerful. Cryptic crossword puzzles he disposed of in minutes. He was responsible for establishing a transplant programme in South Africa, performing the first renal transplant at the Johannesburg General Hospital in 1967 and carrying out research, not only in the field of transplantation but also in pancreatic and biliary surgery. His work on induction of tolerance in baboons to an organ transplant using total lymphoid irradiation was in the international forefront of work in this field, and indeed led to a clinical trial of this approach in humans some years later at Stanford University. His one failure was his inability to establish a successful liver transplant programme. Although he carried out the first liver transplant in South Africa in 1973, based on a successful liver transplant programme in baboons, the human programme was never really successful and indeed some years later he closed it down.

He was an inspiring teacher and an excellent lecturer. He was president of the College of Medicine of South Africa for three years from 1986 to 1989, and president of the Transplant Society of South Africa and of the Surgical Research Society of South Africa. He received numerous honorary awards and fellowships, including fellowships of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the American College of Surgeons and the American Surgical Association. He also had honorary DSc and MD degrees from several South African universities.

One obituary states that: 'He had such a God like status it was difficult to argue with him, let alone tell him he was wrong'. This may explain in some way why he remained a chain smoker until late in his life, despite what must have been an enormous amount of advice to the contrary. Indeed this contributed to his death for, after a fall and fracture, he died of respiratory complications at the age of 82, on 7 April 2010.

Without question Bert Myburgh was a towering figure in surgery in South Africa, both in the academic and clinical spheres. He married twice. His first wife, Teddy, a nurse he met at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, died in 1988. He was survived by his second wife Marie Louise, whom he married in 1993, and by his three children, John, Jacqui and Sandy.

Peter J Morris

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Association of Surgeons of South Africa - accessed 13 November 2013; The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons - accessed 13 November 2013].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England