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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 n.6 Pretoria Jun. 2011




John Hansen (27/12/1920 -10/04/2011)




Joy, Tony, Rob and Sven say goodbye to John. Husband, father, one of South Africa's great doctors and the humblest of gentlemen, John passed away on 10 April 2011. John has enlightened the many lives he has touched and devoted his career to the children of Africa. While he lives on in us and inspires so many of our lives, the world is a better place for the gift of his time with us.

John, son of Otto and Gwen Hansen, was born in Kimberley, South Africa. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1943, and served the Allied forces in Egypt through the final years of World War II. He demobilised in England, where he discovered, firstly, paediatrics and, secondly, the value of persistence. Awarded the Cecil John Rhodes scholarship in 1950, his real work began as a Harvard Research Fellow in neonatal physiology with Clement Smith - one of many mentors and colleagues who became his lifelong friends.

John returned to South Africa in 1952, becoming one of the doyens of nutrition research, cracking the solution to curing and then preventing kwashiorkor, one of the most serious nutritional diseases. After his marriage to Joy in 1958, and the birth of Sven in 1959, he was awarded an MD in 1960 and headed off to the USA with a Rockefeller scholarship.

In the 1960s, John became Associate Professor at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, helping to establish academic paediatrics in South Africa. In 1971 he took Joy and the three boys to Johannesburg when he accepted the Chair of Paediatrics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He became an internationally recognised force in child nutrition, understanding the science and finding practical solutions to the prevention and inexpensive treatment of nutritional deficiency. He was a champion of breastfeeding, electrolyte-balanced rehydration, the prudent diet, exercise and the pivotal role of parents' love and stimulation in the treatment and raising of healthy children. Today, his ideas have been adopted into mainstream thinking in sport, parenting and public health. For this reason he was recognised with an Honorary Doctorate of Sciences by both the University of Cape Town and Wits. He retired as Professor Emeritus.

While a gentle and respectful man, John confronted the inequity of apartheid early in his career and was a champion of a free and an equitable South Africa for his entire life. Before he passed he shared his suggestions for a good life with his sons:

• value yourselves - body, mind and spirit

• value your partners and be faithful to them

• be absolutely straight in all your dealings

• be friends with your children

• be compassionate towards others

• give positive affirmation to colleagues, family and friends.


Sven, Rob and Tony Hansen

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