Douglas Eric Arthur Rivett
Obituary: Douglas Eric Arthur Rivett (27 June 1921 – 25 January 2010)
Nationally and internationally renowned organic chemist, academic and Old Rhodian, Professor Emeritus Douglas Rivett, passed away peacefully in Grahamstown on 25th January, 2010.
Born in the Western Cape in 1921, Douglas Rivett entered Rhodes University as an undergraduate in Science in 1939. He obtained a double first in Chemistry and Physics and went on to an MSc degree studying the sulphurous constituents found in the volatile oil of a local plant known as sea buchu. This work was carried out under the guidance of one of the great Rhodes University characters, Dr JLB Smith, who was then a lecturer in organic chemistry at the University and went onto identify the coelacanth; the “living fossil” fish. A short stint as a Government analyst in Salisbury in the former Southern Rhodesia followed, after which he went onto Cambridge to complete the PhD degree in organic chemistry with Nobel laureate, Lord Todd in 1948. The recipient of a prestigious Rockefeller Post-Doctoral Scholarship, Douglas Rivett moved onto Princeton; this time to the laboratory of Professor Wallis, where he threw himself with characteristic vigour and energy into the world of steroid chemistry, then a new and exciting field of research endeavour.
Always intending to return to South Africa, Douglas Rivett’s first appointment in this country was through Old Rhodian and fellow Cambridge graduate Sir Basil Schonland to the National Chemical Research Laboratory of the CSIR in Pretoria in 1950. Shortly after arriving at the CSIR, Douglas Rivett headed back overseas on secondment to the British Chemical Defense Experimental Establishment in Porton Downs near Salisbury in Wiltshire. He was the only South African ever to work at this top-secret chemical warfare facility. Douglas Rivett returned to the CSIR after a year at Porton and turned his attention to more peaceful pursuits namely, amongst others, studying the chemistry of the complex bitter tasting chemical compounds (natural products) found in the rinds of wild cucumbers. Six years of natural product research at the CSIR provided an opportunity for a spell in industry with the agricultural chemical company, Agricura, based on the outskirts of Pretoria. The ties to research and academia however were too strong and Douglas Rivett returned to his alma mater as a senior lecturer in organic chemistry early in 1962. Douglas Rivett rose through the academic ranks at Rhodes University to become the Chair and Professor of Organic Chemistry. He firmly established the national and international reputation for high quality natural products chemistry research at this University and he remains the only South African chemist ever to have published chemistry research papers continually over seven decades (1946-2005) - a record that will probably never be broken! He was well known across the Eastern Cape for his “Chemistry Magic Shows” which delighted and enthused generations of young scientists. Douglas Rivett served as Chairman of the South African Chemical Institute (1978-1979) and was editor of the South African Journal of Chemistry (1958-1967). He was an intensely staunch Old Rhodian, leading the Old Rhodian Union with distinction and he was thus a worthy recipient of an Old Rhodian award from Rhodes University in 2007 for his unique contribution to the University over many years. A character larger than life in academic circles, Douglas Rivett was one of Rhodes University’s greatest sons and most loyal servants.
Douglas Rivett is survived by his wife, Lettie, their three sons and six grandchildren.