The Department of Biochemistry opened its doors in 1974. Realising the increasing significance of the relatively young discipline, the University of Stellenbosch established the department to keep up with the latest scientific trends.
Two sections in departments from two different faculties joined forces in the new endeavour: Agricultural Biochemistry, from the Faculty of Agriculture, and the Biochemistry section in the Department of Chemistry, which was part of the Faculty of Natural Science. Dr Hennie de Kock from the Department of Chemistry was to serve as co-head of the new department with Prof. Lothar de Wit, who was leading Agricultural Biochemistry at the time.
Sadly, this was not to be, as Dr De Kock passed away suddenly as a result of a heart attack. Since the head of the Biochemistry division in the Chemistry department, Prof. Hannes “Liefie” Barnard, was due to retire, Prof. Kirsten van der Merwe became co-head of the new Biochemistry department together with Prof. De Witt in 1974. Prof. Van der Merwe became the sole head of department in 1978 after Prof. De Wit stepped down.
As is often the case with new ventures, it operated on a skeleton staff. In addition to the two departmental heads, the academic staff consisted of Dr Hermann Stindt and Prof. O.T. de Villiers from Agricultural Biochemistry, and Jannie Hofmeyr (today Prof. Hofmeyr), who was appointed in 1974 as the first junior lecturer in Biochemistry. Pieter Swart (now Prof. Swart) and Helena Koch were appointed as technical officers, Ben Benade operated the department’s amino-acid analyser, while the department’s team of assistants consisted of Oom Willem Koopman (head of assistants), Johannes Cloete, and George Damonse.
In 1975 the department was spread across four buildings on the University campus, including the First Year Chemistry Building, the De Beers Building, the A.I. Perold Building, and the D.F. Malan Building. However, over the course of a few years the entire department moved to the ground floor of the D.F. Malan Building in Merriman Avenue. Only a second year practical laboratory remained in the A.I. perold Building. As the field of biochemistry grew, so did the department and in 2000, it relocated to the newly built J.C. Smuts complex, situated in Merriman Avenue diagonally opposite the D.F. Malan building. The staff and students wheeled most of their laboratory equipment across the road on trolleys.
When the department started, the field was still somewhat unfamiliar to the new academic staff. To counter this problem, and to move beyond rote learning of the subject to active enquiry and research, Prof. Van der Merwe held informal weekly discussions at his home with Jannie Hofmeyr and Pieter Swart to brainstorm and debate problems they encountered in the work. In time, more and more students joined the informal think tank. Today, this spirit of enquiry is seen in all of the department’s well-established laboratories in the various areas of Biochemistry, including steroid research, drug and biocide discovery, immunology, plant bioinformatics and molecular systematics, plant pathogen detection and evolution, systems biology, and water research.