Change the world


Twelve years ago, three formidable institutions of higher learning merged to form what was known as Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. With that came the merging of established academic departments – one of these being the chemistry departments of the then University of Port Elizabeth, Vista University and Port Elizabeth Technikon.

The latter’s story has been documented in a 90-page book by Nelson Mandela University emeritus Professor in Physical and Analytical Chemistry, Peter Loyson, titled The First Chemistry Department in Port Elizabeth.

The book was commissioned a few years ago to coincide with the 50th anniversary of University Chemistry, in 2015, and to supplement institutional archives by plugging in some of the gaps.

“It is always nice to know where you come from and where it all started. When I first looked at the story, I was surprised to find out about the true origins of chemistry in the city,” Prof Loyson said.

The First Chemistry Department in Port Elizabeth was launched at the University last week, attended by some of the most well-known names in science, many of whom had made a marked contribution to the department’s evolution in the city and region over the years.

It details how a building on Port Elizabeth’s Russell Road is essentially where the PE Technikon’s chemistry department has its roots, documenting its evolution and growth since its establishment in 1929 to the eve of the merger in 2004.

An avid historian, Prof Loyson tapped in to various archive material, including that from one of the country’s oldest daily newspapers, The Herald, as well as the Pretoria-based Pharmacy Board and Johannesburg’s SA Chemical Institute to stitch together the 75-year history of the city’s first chemistry department.

“This book chronologically tells the story of the first Department of Chemistry in Port Elizabeth, from its very beginnings at the Port Elizabeth Technical College in Russell Road to the final years of its existence as part of the PE Technikon at the end of 2004,” Prof Loyson said.

The earliest chemistry department was officially opened in 1929 at the PE Technical College, although chemistry classes had already begun the year before stemming from the College’s Department of Leather Trades. Its initial function was to train chemists and druggists – which was the yesteryear term for modern-day pharmacists.

“When I was researching for this book, I was very surprised to discover that the Chemistry in the city started from the leather industry. So essentially, chemistry and pharmacy grew out of the leather industry in the city,” said Prof Loyson.

While training pharmacists, the College also offered courses in Industrial Chemistry and Chemical Analysis and, in 1958, introduced the dedicated Chemical Technical Diploma (CTD) that was later renamed the National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry.

Prof Loyson headed the Chemistry Department between 1980 and 1996, seeing further growth in academic offering and student numbers, including a range of short courses and a National Higher Diploma (NHDip) in Chemistry.

After the Chemistry Department moved to the Technikon in Summerstrand, the under- and postgraduate BTech, MTech and DTech degrees were introduced and went to produce some of the most prolific scholars, who were held in high regard in the field of applied chemistry.

He was succeeded by the late Prof Ben Zeelie who, after obtaining his PhD in Chemistry from UPE, was promoter and co-promoter of more than 60 masters and doctoral students.

Speaking after the launch, Nelson Mandela University’s current Chemistry Head of Department, Prof Zenixole Tshentu, said Prof Loyson’s book was important for reflection of where the department comes from in light of some of the challenges encountered since the merger.

“If we are to shift forward and propose a way forward from where we are and where we need to be, we need to understand who we are and where we come from. I have always maintained that we should, in fact, be called the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry,” he said.

Prof Tshentu said there was another book in the pipeline, to document the history of the University Chemistry Department that Prof Cedric McCleland is working on.

“You cannot move forward without understanding where you come from. Whatever you do, you always have to reflect on where you are coming from and where you are headed, because we need to shape a new department,” said Prof Tshentu.

“It has taken more than 10 years to shape our Chemistry Department because there had been difficulties in understanding the new space.

“Having all this information from this book – the photographs and service records of the HODs – allows us to incorporate that history visually by displaying these in the department corridors.”

The First Chemistry Department in Port Elizabeth is available at selected bookstores and from Prof Loyson directly.

Contact information
Prof Peter Loyson
Professor in Physical and Analytical Chemistry
Tel: 27 41 504 2147