Farewell to Prof Johann Lutjeharms

Legendary Marine Scientist and Honorary Rhodes Graduate 

“He was head and shoulders the best oceanographer in the country” said Professor Christopher McQuaid, a friend and colleague of the late Professor Johann Lutjeharms. A strong family man, Professor Lutjeharms’ remarkable contribution to research in his field spanned decades. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) referred to him as “one of Southern Africa’s leading marine scientists and the foremost authority on the Agulhas Current”.

Professor Lutjeharms had been an A-rated researcher of the South African National Research Foundation since 1998. Along with several international awards and accolades for his peer-reviewed research, he was awarded The Order of Mapungubwe by President Jacob Zuma in April this year. This award recognises South Africans with proven excellence and exceptional achievement.

He was awarded UCT’s most prestigious honour; the DSC degree in 1992 and the Individual Over a Lifetime award by the National Science and Technology Forum in 2008. He was also an honorary graduate of Rhodes University (2006), the University of Pretoria and Amsterdam (2007) most recently of the University of Johannesburg (2009).

Professsor Lutjeharms’ academic passion and compassion towards students and colleagues alike was was experienced by many. According to Dr Isabelle Ansorge of the Oceanography Department at UCT, he was “a great supporter of students and in particular getting them out onto the international platform”. She added that he had always been supportive of her, encouraging her to attend conferences and international workshops while being prepared to assist with travel costs, the one proviso being that she “bring back a nice bottle of red wine”.

A former student of Professor Lutjeharms, Jonathan Durgadoo, recalls how the professor was “more than just a supervisor, he was the person who believed in me in the first place - more than just a mentor…he somehow saw potential when I was just focusing on the challenges”. Durgadoo fondly tells of how his mentor would use past experiences as opportunities for learning and often discovered fresh lessons while retelling anecdotes.

Craig Matthysen recalled a memory from his own student days of the professor on a research cruise; “Johann appeared on the bridge after being away for a while. Wearing a beanie and looking like a real old sea dog. I noticed his complexion was most definitely green and suddenly I felt better; I guess misery does love good company” he said jokingly.

Over the 104-year history of the South African Journal of Science, Professor Lutjeharms was the most published author. He also served on working groups of the Scientific Committee for Oceanic Research (SCOR), the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Ocean. A prolific author and respected researcher, his work has been cited in scientific literature more than 5 400 times to date.

Professor Johann Lutjeharms died at the age of 67 on 8 June 2011 following a 10-year battle with cancer. He is succeeded by his wife Ronel and their two children Wilhelm and Maria. A Thanksgiving service was held in his memory in Stellenbosch on 14 June.

By: Zukiswa Kota


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