Welcome to Stellenbosch University


​​The department of Genetics originated in 1925 from the department of Agricultural Botany in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. Its first professor, prof. JH Neethling , did pioneering work in teaching Genetics and breeding small grain cereals. He was succeeded by, proff. FX Laubscher, R de V Pienaar, AE Retief, GF Marais, L Warnich, JT Burger and D Brink.  


The history of the Department of Genetics can be authentically traced back to 1898, when the Stellenbosch College of Agriculture was founded on the outskirts of the village of Stellenbosch. The Department got off the ground as part of the Arts Department, and the decision was formulated as follows: "The Department of Agriculture which it has been resolved to add, will be commenced by a Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics, now to be appointed who will devote special attention to the practical application of his subjects". Among noteworthy reports regarding fruit and viticulture trials, mention is made of 378 wheat varieties, which were evaluated for stem rust resistance at Elsenburg and Robertson Experimental Stations by Dr EA Nobbs. As a result of this the latter can be recognised as the first wheat breeder in South Africa. 

Due to the expansion of activities of this College, it was necessary to secure a larger tract of land, and this was accomplished when the Cape Government acquired the farm Elsenburg from Mr Frank Myburgh on 1 September 1898. Elsenburg College of Agriculture which was founded on 15 May 1912 was visualised as being primarily a training facility for aspiring farmers, which in effect implied that the Victoria College had lost its bid to establish a Faculty of Agriculture. Among the first three appointees to the Elsenburg College (15 May 1912) was Prof JH Neethling, who was head of the Department of Plant Botany. The Victoria College Council did not accept this arrangement. as they were desirous of establishing a Faculty of Agriculture which could be integrated with the existing science faculties, and thus lead to the acquisition of a University degree. Many years of representation to the Government for the founding of such a facility followed, until on 13 September 1917 the Faculty of Agriculture was eventually established. Certain staff members who held positions at the Elsenburg College took office at the new Faculty of Agriculture, and on 20 August 1917 the first three Professors were welcomed by the University Senate, and these included Proff JH Neethling, JP du Boisson and AI Perold. The minutes of the Senate Meeting on 12 September 1917, denoted Neethlings' Department as Plant Breeding. At a Senate Meeting which took place on 19 August 1925, this Department was officially renamed Genetics, and this decision was officially formulated as follows : That the name of the present Department of Plant Breeding be changed to the Department of Genetics (with Prof JH Neethling as representative) to undertake the study of the scientific principles of genetics for the whole Faculty i.e.Animal as well as Plant Genetics" A second decision was accepted viz. that a half-time lecturer be appointed to assist with the practical work of Botany 1. This position was filled by Dr DG Haylett. 

In summary it is thus important to remember that the first Department of Plant Breeding was established at The Victoria College on 12 September 1917, and that this Department was expanded to include animal breeding, and renamed The Department of Genetics on 19 August 1925. 

As such this probably was one of the first courses in plant breeding/genetics, worldwide. The Afrikaans designation (Erflikheidsleer) was maintained until 1976, when according to international convention, the designation Department of Genetics (Genetika) was formally accepted.

JH NEETHLING 1925-1949 

Neethling was born on 28 May 1887 in Lydenburg, Mpumalanga. During the Anglo Boer war, at the age of 14 years, he accompanied his father and uncle on commando. After the war, he returned to the Boys High School at Stellenbosch to complete his studies, and matriculated in 1906. In 1907 he gained the intermediate BA-degree at the Victoria College. He was one of a group of youngsters selected by General Louis Botha to further their studies in agriculture overseas. In 1911 he was awarded the BSc Agric.-degree by the University of Cornell,USA. In the same year he also completed the MSc Agric- degree under Proff Webber and Gilbert. Prior to returning to South Africa, he received tuition in hybrid maize breeding under the guidance of Prof Moore in Wisconsin, and then was instructed in genetics by Prof Richard Goldschmidt in Munich, as well as by Prof Hugo de Vries in Amsterdam. 

The existence and well being of the small grain industry in South Africa midst poor environmental conditions and ravages of diseases, was largely built on Neethling's knowledge and expertise, who succeeded eminently in combining theory and practice. For almost a half-century the wheat cultivars grown in the South Western Cape Province, emanated from his breeding programme. The wheat cultivars Union 17 and Union 52, which were released in 1915, were followed by Gluretty, Hoopvol, Koalisie, and especially Pelgrim, Vorentoe and Sterling, which according to him were the most successful. These cultivar names were all related to major events in the history and well being of South Africa e.g. Union relates to the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and Sterling relates to the official departure of South Africa from the gold standard in 1932. 

In 1949 the Wheat Board erected a green house and adjoining laboratory at the Welgevallen Experiment station, and named it in his honour. In 1963 SA Academy of Arts and Science awarded the Havenga Prize to him in recognition of his contribution to Science. In 1982 the Senate of the University of Stellenbosch named the Agriculture Building after him. By virtue of his appearance and historical fact, he is recognised as the patriarch of the science and art of Plant Breeding in South Africa. During his tenure 4 DSc and 29 MSc-degrees were conferred. 

Professor Neethling retired in 1949, and was succeeded by one of his students Prof FX Laubscher. After his retirement he continued his hobbies, which included his love for baseball, where he was Vice -President of the Western Province Baseball Union, breeding racing pigeons and rose breeding. 

FX LAUBSCHER 1950-1968

Franciscus Xavierus Laubscher was born on 14 November 1906, in Vredenburg, and received his schooling there. He qualified for the BSc Agric-degree in 1928, MSc-Agric (Genetics)–degree (cum laude) in 1942 and DSc Agric–degree in 1945. After fulfilling various research and teaching assignments in various parts of the country, most of these on behalf of some high level Government agency, he was appointed to the Chair of Genetics at his alma mater in 1950. In order to demonstrate his versatility and breadth of knowledge the following may be mentioned. From 1936-1949, while being stationed at the Potchefstroom College of Agriculture he was involved in wheat breeding and released the cultivars Spitskop, Goudveld and Magaliesburg; he published a monograph entitled "A genetic study of Sorghum relationships”; he was placed in charge of agronomy research at the College and initiated hybrid maize breeding in South Africa. In 1949 he was appointed as technical advisor to the Maize Board in which capacity he, together with scientists from the US was responsible for the successful initiation of the national maize hybrid-breeding programme. 

After accepting the chair of Genetics at Stellenbosch University he continued his wheat breeding interests, and a whole range of wheat cultivars was released the most important of which being Flameks, a wheat with exceptional baking attributes. Through his contacts to the wheat and maize industries he headed various delegations abroad in search of novel germplasm, and also to be updated on current thinking in the various fields of genetics. His versatility can probably best be exemplified by the fact that he was requested to make a study of sheep breeding in Australia, and this visit resulted in the founding of the Sheep Performance Testing Centre at Middelberg, Cape. 

In his time the Department was also extended to include an advanced course in Animal Breeding (Dr JS Allan), Cytology (Prof R deV Pienaar), Biometry (Prof IMR van Aarde, Dr J Randall) and Quantitative Genetics (Prof JM Stevens and JH Louw). Laubscher excelled as a teacher of exceptional calibre, was soft spoken and fluent in both official languages. As a geneticist of world repute, plant and maize breeder and teacher, his influence stands out. His success as a teacher and true scientists can probably best be gauged by the fact that 50 students obtained their Masters degree during his tenure and nine received PhD-degrees. His meticulous attention to basic principles in the assessment, interpretation and application of plant breeding procedures, is well known to his past students and, no doubt, is reflected in their own achievements.

R deV PIENAAR 1969-1991

Rousselot de Villiers Pienaar started his career as an assistant scientific officer at the Department of Agriculture in 1954, and proceeded through the ranks, until he was appointed as Professor of Cytology in 1964. Upon the retirement of Laubscher, he was appointed as Head of Department in 1969. Pienaar was an exceptionally hard worker, meticulous scientist and dedicated teacher. His first appointment was related to initiating onion and chinkerinchee (Ornithogalum) breeding programmes. Later his field of interest and expertise was in wide crosses involving the genus Triticum and related species, especially in the area of allopolyploids, concerning Triticum durum and Triticum aestivumwith rye and Thinopyrum distichum. He was the first to successfully intercross the wild growing Thinopyrum with bread and durum wheats. This research was well supported by postgraduate students, which led to 13 Master's degrees and six PhD's. With industry funding and ably supported technically by HS Roux, he initiated Triticale and durum wheat breeding programmes, and this led to the release of six durum and five triticale cultivars. 

In 1986 a grant from the Anglo American Corporation made possible the founding of a laboratory for biotechnological research in the Department of Genetics, as part of the Institute of Biotechnology of the Faculty of Agriculture. With funds bequeathed from the legacy of Prof JH Neethling, the post of chief researcher to head this Institute was created. The first incumbent of this position was Dr GF Marais. 

Pienaar was well recognized internationally, travelled extensively and was awarded various awards, among these being a special award by CIMMYT "in recognition of his lifelong dedication to wheat improvement through building bridges between wheat and its relatives". In 1986 he was appointed as 3rd Monsanto-Sears visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri, USA.

AE RETIEF 1991-1996

Andries Edmund Retief started his career as a lecturer at the Glen Agricultural College, Bloemfontein, in 1966, a post he held up to 1968 when he joined the Cape Provincial Administration as a researcher at the Medical Faculty at Tygerberg Hospital, Bellville. In 1983 he was appointed as Honorary Director of a research unit at the Medical Research Council, and in 1988 the Directorship was extended for another five years. He was promoted to the Chair of Human Genetics at the University of Stellenbosch at the Tygerberg Campus in 1989, and then became Professor and Head of the Department of Genetics in 1991.

Retief was deeply involved in the initiation of molecular human genetics as a diagnostic research tool in South Africa, was considered a dynamic personality and a leader in his field. As a result of this he travelled widely, and represented South Africa at 28 International and 60 local meetings. The emphasis on molecular genetics was increased during his tenure, and the University embarked on a large laboratory expansion programme, housing both human (Prof L Warnich) as well as plant molecular (Prof GF Marais) biologists, thereby increasing the thrust of molecular research at Stellenbosch. For the first time the Department of Genetics also included human genetics as part of its curriculum, and as a result of this the student numbers at all levels increased dramatically. 

Retief was appointed to various National as well as International scientific Committees among these being Chairman of the S A Council of Medical Scientists in 1986 to 1991, President of the SA Genetics Society from 1993 to 1996, Member of the Human Genomic Organization (HUGO) since 1991 and a Member of Centre du Polimorphism Humaine (CEPH) since 1986. During his career Retief was honoured with various awards, two of the most outstanding probably being for the best publication; 50 years of the SA Medical Journal (1975), a feat he repeated in 1990, and the JJ van Zyl trophy for best research, Faculty of Medicine, University of Stellenbosch. Retief's research was well supported by his staff and students, and 10 PhD as well as 27 MSc students were guided through their post graduate studies.

GF MARAIS 1986-2004

Gideon Francois Marais launched his career in 1973 when he was employed by the Department of Agricultural Technical Services, stationed at Welgevallen Research Station, Stellenbosch. Upon completion of his Master's degree in 1976, he was seconded to North Dakota State University (NDSU), where he completed his Ph.D.-degree in 1979, majoring in cereal technology.

Subsequently he initiated the cereal technology laboratory at the ARC-Small Grain Institute (ARC-SGI).  He tooled up and developed a fully functional rheology laboratory for bread wheat quality research, trained staff in all aspects of rheology, and the laboratory became operational as only the second of its kind in South Africa. Due to health constraints of his wife and children, the family relocated to Stellenbosch in 1982, where he joined the ARC-SGI Sub-Centre staff at Elsenburg Agricultural College.

In 1986 he joined the Department of Genetics of the University of Stellenbosch, and slowly worked himself up the academic ladder, until in 1996 he became Professor and Chairman of the Department of Genetics, a post he relinquished in 2004 in order to devote more time to his research projects. It might be worthy to note that he completed a second Doctorate at the University of Stellenbosch in 1992. Post 2004 he devoted all his time to his research interests and his own cohort of post graduate students. Early in 2009 the family relocated to Canada, and in late 2010 Marais was appointed wheat breeder and associate professor of Plant Breeding at his alma mater NDSU.

Prof Marais is one of a relatively small group of intellectually endowed individuals who has the mental capacity to excel in a variety of scientific fields. In his graduate years he excelled in biometry and genetics, while early in his career his field of study was, Cereal Technology, in which he was top student at NDSU. The emphasis of his research over time slowly changed to cytogenetics and molecular genetics while employed at the University of Stellenbosch, without however relinquishing his interest and attention to conventional plant breeding. Throughout his career Prof Marais ploughed new ground, and excelled when compared to his peers, irrespective of the scientific orientation. His research in the field of Cereal Technology, gave new insights on the problem of pre-harvest sprouting of wheat and the influence on the milling and baking properties of the milled product. The results were reported at relevant international symposia. In his present field of expertise, viz. wheat cytogenetics, he is one of the few remaining exponents in this field internationally, which makes his intellectual and tangible intellectual outputs internationally relevant. In an ever changing world, and one in which environmental concerns are becoming more vociferous and intimidating, the products of his research, by way of novel gene and chromosome sequences, obtained by manipulating wheat and allied species and genera, are effective and environmentally friendly. These relate to genetic resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses as presented by diseases and insect pests, and adaptation to soils which are not conducive to optimal plant growth such as high salinity and high pH levels. Through his post graduate students he has developed the applicable molecular genetic markers to identify these superior genetic combinations, as well as the appropriate technology to combine them in high yielding conventional material. His gene bank consists of various novel constructs and bears testimony to his creative mind, is a valuable national resource which should be maintained at all cost. 

During his career he published quite profusely in local as well as international journals (68 papers), and supervised 23 post-graduate studies (3 PhD and 20 Masters degrees). He was an NRF rated scientist (category B1); served on the review panel of leading local and international journals. In 1990 and 1991 he obtained stipends from the Foundation for Research and Development, and was honored with the following awards: Shared the SANACHEM (SA Journal of Plant and Soil) best publications award in 1996 and 1997, in 2000 he was awarded the Roll of Honour of the Southern African Plant Breeders' Association and in 2008 he received the Rector's award of the University of Stellenbosch for Research Excellence.

Compiled by Prof Klaus Pakendorf (ARC, Infruitec campus)