Professor Harry Seftel, a prominent figure in South Africa’s medical community, passed away at the age of 94, leaving behind an impactful legacy. Renowned for his extensive career and dedication to public education, Seftel’s death was acknowledged with deep sadness by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Harold Cecil Seftel was born in Johannesburg on 28 December 1928. In 1945, he matriculated from Jeppe High School with distinctions in Latin and Greek. In the following year, he began his association with this university, which continued unbroken to that day. He registered in the Faculty of Medicine, obtaining the degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 1952.
Harry Seftel became an intern at Baragwanath Hospital in 1953. Thereafter, he was appointed successively as Registrar, Medical Officer and, after being awarded the specialist qualification of Diploma in aptoma Medicine by this university, Physician.
In 1964, he was appointed as Physician-in-charge of the Department of Medicine at what was at the time called the Johannesburg Non-European Hospital, was elevated to a chair as Ad hominem Professor of African Diseases in 1971, and finally, in 1982, was appointed as Professor of Medicine and Chief Physician at the Hillbrow Hospital.
Harry Seftel was an outstanding clinician who made major contributions to the categorization of infective and non-infective diseases of black South Africans. He was one of the best undergraduate teachers in the Faculty and was awarded the prestigious Tobias and Convocation Medal for undergraduate teaching in 1991.
He was also a distinguished research worker. Since 1971, he had been the Director of the Medical Research Council Carbohydrate and Lipid Metabolism Research Group. He encouraged research at many levels and was the author and co-author of more than two hundred publications in the fields of endocrinology, metabolism, diabetes, cardiology, haematology, nephrology, nutrition, pharmacology, community medicine, and infective diseases.
Harry Seftel’s research interests had been concerned with the epidemiology of many diseases that occurred commonly in black South Africans (particularly arterial hypertension), in the Asian oral iron overload, cryptogenic cardiomyopathy, and population (coronary artery disease, diabetes mellitus), and in the Afrikaner community (familial hypercholesterolaemia), and with the characterization of the risk factors that underlay these common disease processes.
The extraordinary breadth of his research interests and activities and his enthusiasm in pursuing them explained why he had been able to contribute to knowledge in so many fields.
His co-workers in these research endeavors included a galaxy of local and international academics. This work, as in all his research endeavors, ranged from an epidemiological approach to basic laboratory experimentation.
He had not been content simply to have his research published in leading scientific journals but had taken its implications to the general public through striking presentations in the media.
Although risk factors had been the dominant theme of Harry Seftel’s research, his enormous intellectual curiosity had led him into other areas, such as iron metabolism and haematology, pure endocrinology, pharmacology and therapeutics, and renal disease.
In addition to his mainstream interests, he established the Renal Unit at Baragwanath Hospital in 1960, was co-founder of the Liver Unit at the Johannesburg Hospital, and founder and President of the Infectious Diseases Society of South Africa, Founder President of the Aspirin Foundation of Southern Africa and Chairman of the Clinical Committee of the South African Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
He was also past Chairman or President of the Society for Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa, the Lipid and Atherosclerosis Society of Southern Africa, the Southern African Hypertension Society, and the Southern African Council Against Smoking. Harry Seftel was probably best known for his talks on radio and television, which spanned the whole range of general medicine.
His attempts to educate the public combined unique teaching skills, his vast general knowledge, and a critical and inquiring mind that had been molded by his deep immersion in research. Many aphorisms were attributed to him, one of the most revealing his saying, ‘trust no one, least of all yourself.’
Thus he had tried to discover the truth, but as importantly had tried to convey the truth in simple language to the public at large. In this, he had succeeded superbly.
Harry Seftel had brought unique qualities of personality and intellect to bear on medicine in this country.
His contribution had been extraordinary, and his influence felt by every student who had heard him lecture or worked in his wards.
Although he officially retired from his chair at the end of 1993, his energy continued unabated. He remained in the Department of Medicine as an Emeritus Professor and an Honorary Professorial Research Fellow with a part-time appointment at Hillbrow Hospital. He was still teaching, continuing with his research, seeing patients, and educating the general public.
Seftel’s journey was marked by continuous curiosity and dedication to improving community health. He was remembered as a national treasure whose love for his work and people should be celebrated and remembered, inspiring future healthcare professionals.
The passing of Professor Harry Seftel marks a profound loss in the medical field and stands as a reminder of the significant contributions made by a generation that shaped 20th-century South Africa.