Obituary: Prof. Jacquez Charl "Kay" de Villiers

It is with great sadness we share the news of the passing of WFNS Honorary President Emeritus Professor Jacquez Charl “Kay” de Villiers, considered by many to be the father of academic neurosurgery in South Africa.


Born in Klerksdorp, Kay studied Medicine at the University of Cape Town and after internship at Groote Schuur Hospital, commenced general practice in a small town where he encountered 5 generations of a family affected by polycystic kidney disease- which led to a doctoral thesis on the genetics of the condition. This was a very happy period of his career but he left after 4 years to take up a lecturer post in Anatomy at the newly established University of Stellenbosch Medical School, as a prelude to the FRCS exam and surgical training in London in 1960.


Kay spent 5 invigorating years in the UK, undergoing neurosurgical training at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square and Atkinson Morley’s Hospital, Wimbledon. During this time he was mentored by Mr Wylie McKissock, doyen of British neurosurgery and another source of endless anecdotes. Despite the rigours of training, he found time to immerse himself in history, literature and poetry, and excelled academically, winning a research fellowship to spend a year studying head injury in the laboratory of Dr Tom Langfitt in Philadelphia.


Upon his return to South Africa in 1966, Kay was appointed as the first full-time neurosurgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital, and devoted the remainder of his career to this institution. He duly followed De Villiers Hamman as Head of Department in 1972 and was honoured as the first incumbent of the Helen and Morris Mauerberger Chair of Neurosurgery.


While his research interests were those of any dedicated clinician, reflecting the diversity of conditions he encountered in his daily practice, he made special contributions to the understanding of head injury in children. After spending time with Guiot in Paris, he introduced the new technique of trans-sphenoidal pituitary surgery- and an appreciation of fine cognac which never waned and enlivened visits to his home.


Prof de Villiers’ decisive leadership found him elected president or chair of many learned organisations. He served the Society of Neurosurgeons of South Africa with great loyalty for nearly 50 years- from our inaugural meeting in 1970 to our 26th scientific meeting in Durban last year where he took great pleasure in introducing his close friend and former trainee Shafik Parker. He was SNSA president from 1976-1977 and played a leading role in the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, serving as an examiner on numerous occasions. He served as Chair of the Publications Committee of the Medical Association (1975-1979) and Chair of Council of the University of the Western Cape in the 1980s, where his many contributions and talent for annoying the political establishment were rewarded with an Honorary DSc in 1989.


Prof de Villiers played a leading role on the world stage as a member of the International Society of Pituitary Surgeons, SNSA senior delegate to the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies (1981-1991) and member of the WFNS committee on classification of subarachnoid haemorrhage in 1983. He was deservedly elected Honorary President of PAANS (1996) and the WFNS (1997), the only South African to receive this honour. Among his closest neurosurgical friends were A.K. Banerjee, Adelola Adeloye, John Jane and Ed Laws.


While his love of clinical neurology knew no bounds, his over-arching passion was history. A Wellcome Foundation travelling fellowship in 1998 enabled him to research medical aspects of the Anglo-Boer War, which led to numerous publications and culminated in his magnum opus Healers, Helpers and Hospitals: A history of Military Medicine in the Anglo-Boer war, winner of the UCT Book Award in 2011- at the age of 83! He was determined to bring history to life and devoted his retirement to establishing the Cape Medical Museum which established the annual Kay de Villiers lecture in his honour.


Prof de Villiers was a polymath who could truly be called a Renaissance Man. His breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding was magisterial but never over-bearing, modulated by an impish sense of humour, especially in his later years. His memory for the patients he cared for, and the small details that made all the difference in their lives was just breath-taking, and inspired us all to be more attentive doctors. His legendary teaching skills earned him one of the first UCT Distinguished Teacher Awards and along the way he mentored many fine neurosurgeons, including his successor Professor Jonathan C Peter, who all made their mark yet retained a strong loyalty to the department he established.


He twice endured the great sadness of losing his wife in Kina (1967) and Jeanne (2016), and our thoughts are with their children Charl and Elfrida, and their families. His memory will live on in them, in the generations he inspired, the many colleagues who knew and admired him, and the institutions he cherished.


Graham Fieggen                                                                       Allan Taylor

WFNS 2nd Vice President (CAANS region)                          SNSA President



February 2024