Stellenbosch University's (SU) Professor Douglas (Doug) E Rawlings (69), one of South Africa's foremost microbiologists, passed away over the weekend (2 May 2020) after suffering a heart attack.
Rawlings, one of the first molecular microbiologists in South Africa, is a former President of the Royal Society of South Africa and a founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.
Having completed his PhD at Rhodes University in 1976, Rawlings left academia behind, but returned as a lecturer in Microbiology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). In 1982 he relocated to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where he was promoted to an ad hominem chair as Professor of Microbiology in 1988. In 1998 he was appointed as chair of SU's Department of Microbiology, and apart from terms as vice-dean of the Faculty of Science, he also acted as interim dean and vice-rector of research.
Since the late 1980s, Rawlings and his research group made internationally recognised contributions to the field of Molecular Biology with his research on the use of microorganisms in biomining. He also made a significant contribution to our understanding of the biology of broad host range IncQ-family plasmids, and for twenty years (1992–2011) he held an A-rating from the National Research Foundation.
Many students have expressed their sadness upon hearing of his passing and have commented on his wisdom, kindness, empathy, humility, invaluable guidance and his selfless willingness to serve. These thoughts are echoed by many of his colleagues. Professor Chrissie Rey (Wits) commented that; “Doug was always so kind and caring. And he always gave me excellent advice which I took to get my research and teaching off the ground. However, I will always remember him with that funny laugh of his which would burst out unexpectedly. He was a marvellous A rated scientist and he will be missed both personally and professionally.”
Professor Nicolas Guiliani (Universidad de Chile) remembers spending most of his PhD reading research published by the Rawlings group; “I mean all the relevant works and publications related to the Molecular Biology of Acidithiobacillus and biomining microorganisms were from Dr. Rawlings’ lab. I strongly felt the need to find a way to publish with Dr. Rawlings, and in 2015 we produced a publication in PLOS one. I was and I am so happy to have this publication with him.”
Professor Emile van Zyl (SU) says Rawlings was a leading internationally recognised researcher and a “mensch" in every sense of the word. “He held high personal values and standards and was able to lead the Department of Microbiology through a difficult time in its history. His approach later became the ethos of the department and took us to great heights.”
Dr Shelly Deane (US), a self-proclaimed “proud and grateful Biomining Research Group member for 20+ years” remembers how Rawlings’ research remained at the forefront of the biomining and bioleaching field. “He maintained a very high standard of research, never publishing anything unless it was a significant finding that he felt would contribute to science in general. Rarely would we dare to propose a badly thought out approach or suggest a half-baked theory for fear of it being shot down in flames. They would be sympathetic, and tactful flames, but flames nonetheless!”
Dr Deane adds; “His legacy however is not only the body of science that he and his students contributed to, but the lessons we learned about personal and scientific integrity, empathy, kindness, patience, enthusiasm, wisdom, perseverance, humour, gratefulness and humility that he taught by example. It has been a pleasure and an honour to have known Doug and been part of his all-too-short journey with us.”
During his career, Rawlings received numerous accolades, including the PanLabs Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology in the USA, the Havenga-prize from the Suid-Afrikaanse vir Wetenskap en Kuns en the SU Rector's award for excellence in research. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Lifetime Award of the National Science and Technology Forum. He served several terms on the Council of the South African Society for Microbiology and was a recipient of the society’s silver and gold medals in 1992 and 2011 respectively.
His love for the “beauty of science” and strong desire to make a positive impact in people’s lives will be sorely missed by the scientific community both at home and abroad.
Rawlings leaves behind his wife, three children and five grandchildren.
Photos kindly provided by Dr Deane and Dr Volschenk