A highly distinguished career over more than three decades has earned many honours for Prof Jimmy Volmink, the Dean of Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. In February, the Belgian university KU Leuven will add to this ever-growing list when it awards him an honorary doctorate.
"KU Leuven has a centuries-long tradition of awarding honorary doctorates to individuals of exceptional distinction," the university informed Volmink recently. "In conferring this degree, our university community wishes to recognise you for your work in the fight against inequality in order to promote human dignity, and your contribution to both science and practice to improve health and wellbeing."
This statement succinctly describes the essence of Volmink's career. His commitment and compassion were clear right from the start when he chose to work at a rural hospital in Swaziland (Eswatini) after he completed an MBChB degree at the University of Cape Town in 1982.
He then returned to Cape Town, where he worked at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital (1985) and subsequently as a family practitioner in Mitchells Plain (1986-1993). In addition, he worked part-time as medical officer at Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital and as district surgeon in Mitchells Plain (1986-1987).
During this period, he also somehow still found time to do a DCH at the SA College of Medicine (1986) and an MPH in epidemiology at Harvard University (1988) before he became a Specialist Scientist at the SA Medical Research Council's Centre for Epidemiological Research in Southern Africa (1990-1993).
Volmink later continued his studies in epidemiology and obtained a DPhil degree from Oxford University in 1996. It was during his time at Oxford that a chance meeting with Sir Iain Chalmers, one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration, turned his career in a new direction.
"Meeting Iain was a life-changing moment," Volmink acknowledges in an interview with the medical journal The Lancet. "Everything I have done since has been through the lens of evidence-based medicine [EBM]."
So, when the SA Medical Research Council invited him to establish the SA Cochrane Centre (now Cochrane SA) in 1997, he readily accepted the challenge. This marked the beginning of the formal promotion of EBM in South Africa, which is premised on the idea that decision making in healthcare should be based on reliable evidence from clinical research, and not merely on expert opinion or tradition.
Today Cochrane SA is widely known for the quality of its training in EBM and for developing various Cochrane methodologies and tools. It has produced a number of important systematic reviews, most notably in the field of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, which have informed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, as well as national policies.
Volmink went on to gain international prominence as a leader in this relatively new global movement in medicine, which subsequently also gained traction in a number of other disciplines. In 2015, he received the Leverhulme Medal for his contribution to evidence-based healthcare from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
In addition, Volmink has made a significant contribution to health sciences education at Stellenbosch University after he joined the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences as Deputy Dean (Research) in 2006. He developed or taught various courses in epidemiology, evidence-based healthcare, public health, preventive medicine and primary healthcare, and led the development of an MSc in Clinical Epidemiology as well.
Volmink became Dean in 2011. Since then, the Faculty has succeeded in significantly improving access to students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds while, at the same time, maintaining high success rates.
In addition to supporting the development of a new generation of health professionals and scientists, the Faculty has played a pioneering role under his leadership in reforming training curricula for healthcare professionals.
The influence of Volmink's parents, James and Johanna, is clearly still very strong in his life. Although neither of them went further than primary school due to financial constraints, they always emphasised the value of education, and five of their seven children obtained postgraduate qualifications.
Like the Dean, his brother Prof John Volmink went on to carve out a prestigious career in education as well. Most notably, he played a leading role in post-apartheid South Africa in curriculum reform, advancing mathematics education and the quality assurance of schooling. In recognition of these outstanding contributions, he will receive an honorary doctorate in education from Stellenbosch University in December.
A few weeks later, the Dean will receive his honorary doctorate from KU Leuven as part of its Patron Saint's Day celebrations on February 2. It is an honour that Volmink, an elected Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and an elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, richly deserves.
The Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Prof Wim de Villiers, welcomes the latest acknowledgement of Volmink's contribution to medicine and health sciences education: “An honorary doctorate is one of the highest accolades that can be bestowed on an academic, especially if it is from a leading university like KU Leuven.
"Prof Volmink fully deserves this honour and we are immensely proud of him. He is not only a leading academic, but also an excellent administrator and leader. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that he continued with his research career while also being Dean of our Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, which has thrived under his visionary leadership.
"With his international exposure to the training of healthcare professionals, he has further enhanced the academic and research excellence for which the Faculty is renowned. Our heartiest congratulations to Prof Volmink."
Caption: Prof Jimmy Volmink. Photo by Damien Schumann.