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South African division of International Academy of Pathology - A historical resume

During the late 1950s the need for South Africa to have a National Pathology Group was recognised but, because of the high cost of travel between the centres where academic pathology was practised, this objective could not readily be achieved. The pathologists in Johannesburg and Pretoria formed a regional association called the Transvaal Society of Pathologists who met regularly in the two centres while Cape Town and Stellenbosch University laboratory scientists formed a local Experimental Biology Group that went beyond the realms of pathology and so provided a larger number of members to enhance participation at their meetings.

Under the leadership of Professor Basil James Pavey Becker (affectionately called Bunny Becker), head of Anatomical Pathology at South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) and Witwaterstand University, while he was chairman of the Transvaal Society of Pathology and with the support of professors in then existing pathology departments at Pretoria University, Cape Town University and University of Natal, an inaugural meeting was called in the Nurses’ Home at the National Hospital in Bloemfontein during the morning of 6 August 1960. There were 34 delegates, 33 South Africans (3 ladies) and one British visitor. They agreed upon the formation of the South African Society of Pathologists (SASP) and prepared a working constitution. That afternoon ten multi-disciplinary papers were read. The delegates had all motored to and from Bloemfontein and, because of the need for self-funding the cost of travel and accommodation, it was decided that future congresses would all be held in Bloemfontein. However, after three such congresses, the work involved in making the annual arrangement by Dr Neser, the solitary pathologist in Bloemfontein and member of the society, and an improved provision of funding from various sources for the attendance of medical congresses, it was decided that the venue for the annual congress should rotate sequentially among the centres that have Medical Faculties.

At the time of the formation of the SASP there was only one pathology discipline on the registry of specialities of the South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC). There was no College of Pathologists anywhere in the British Commonwealth and all pathologists had a general training that covered all aspects of Morbid Anatomy, Surgical Pathology, Bacteriology, Parasitology, Virology, Mycology, Immunology, Chemical Pathology, Endocrinology, Haematology and Forensic Pathology. The total number of medical practitioners and scientists practising in laboratory medicine was small and with this being the only national organization of pathologists that also included non-medically qualified scientists in its membership, SASP was called upon to represent laboratory based professionals on a wide spectrum of issues.

The initial objectives of the society were to “advance pathology and to facilitate contact between those interested in pathology and related subjects”. Recognizing that pathology, in its broadest sense, is the foundation on which the whole edifice of health care service and research rests, the shortage of pathologists in the country was then and still is a matter for concern. Initially, there were problems with recruitment and while this was being resolved, a significant exodus of our best, well trained young pathologists to affluent countries occurred. The untimely death of Professor Bunny Becker, the first president of SASP, on 8 December 1966 retarded the growth of pathology but distinguished and sometimes eccentric characters gradually emerged and took up the cudgels.