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SU pays tribute to beloved microbiologist, Doug Rawlings
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie
Published: 03/05/2020

​​Stellenbosch University's (SU) Professor Douglas (Doug) E Rawlings (68), one of South Africa's foremost microbiologists, passed away over the weekend (2 May 2020) after suffering a heart attack.

Rawlings, one of the first molecular microbiologists in South Africa, is a former President of the Royal Society of South Africa and a founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

Since the late 1980s, Rawlings and his research group made internationally-recognised contributions to the field of Molecular Biology with his research on the use of microorganisms in bio-mining. He also made a significant contribution to our understanding of the biology of broad host range IncQ-family plasmids, and for twenty years (1992–2011) he held an A-rating from the National Research Foundation.

Rawlings was also a leader in higher education management. In 1998 he was appointed as chair of SU's Department of Microbiology, and apart from terms as vice-dean of the Faculty of Science, he also acted as interim dean and vice-rector of research.

Professor Emile van Zyl, Distinguished Professor in Microbiology and long-term colleague, says Rawlings was a leading internationally-recognised researcher and a “mensch" in every sense of the word. “He held high personal values and standards and was able to lead the Department of Microbiology through a difficult time in its history. His approach later became the ethos of the department and took us to great heights. One of his most loved sayings was that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That is why he believed that every lecturer had to be supported and find their place in the Department, because only then could the Department as a whole achieve success."

Van Zyl says Rawlings was an old school gentleman and very conscientious. “I will never forget the time when he insisted on coming to work despite a serious eye infection. He is one of the few people who can probably count the number of sick days on one hand."

According to Van Zyl it is less well-known that, in his personal life, Rawlings was “shepherd" to a small church parish. Together with his wife, Janet, they often took in parish members. “Doug's entire life was characterised by the motto: 'in service of my fellow-man'. He applied this on all levels of his life – academic, religious and later years top management. In his quiet way he contributed immensely to the integrity of top management."

Mentor for early career researchers

Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director: Research and Innovation at SU, says Rawlings had played a key role in SU's early career academic development programme over the past four years. “He was a well-respected and much-loved colleague in the Division for Research Development (DRD) and an integral part of our research support team. He made an exceptional contribution to the development of early-career academic staff members during this post-retirement part of his career.

“In the same period, he also served as alternate Research Integrity Officer and as a valued member of one of our Research Ethics Committees. As a man of absolute integrity and exceptional and deep perception and insight, he could be fully trusted with and excelled in these difficult roles – always regarding the people involved in research integrity issues as his top priority.

“Doug was a brilliant, humble academic role model and a mentor to so many people, including myself. I will never forget his exceptional and selfless service to SU and to my division. I will cherish the lessons that I've learnt from him. He was an epitome of wisdom, kindness, empathy and humility. Even as a global leader in his scientific field, he didn't care about public awards or acknowledgements. He did care deeply about making a positive impact on people's lives, sharing his experiences and wisdom, and bringing kindness into this world.

“He will be sorely missed by everyone in the DRD and in the SU academic community. Our heartfelt condolences to his family in this very difficult time of loss and grief. He always spoke with so much love about his wife Janet and their children and grandchildren."

During his career, Rawlings received numerous accolades, including the PanLabs Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology in the USA, the Havenga-prize from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns en the SU Rector's award for excellence in research. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Lifetime Award of the National Science and Technology Forum. He served several terms on the Council of the South African Society for Microbiology and was a recipient of the Association's silver and gold medals in 1992 and 2011) respectively.

Rawlings leaves behind his wife, three children and five grandchildren.