I have the honour to nominate Dr Malegapuru William Makgoba for an ASSAf Science-for-Society Gold Medal. 

Dr Makgoba's work and his contribution to medical science in South Africa, particularly over the past 8 years during which he served first as chairperson of the board of the Medical Research Council and subsequently as president of the MRC, have served with distinction the key objective of the Academy and each of the elements of that objective.  In short, Dr Makgoba has made an outstanding contribution to South African medical science, holding up and enhancing the fine reputation of science in the country and in the international community, and encouraging and supporting young scientists. 

Under Dr Makgoba's guidance the MRC became a considerably larger and more efficient institution, and he has ensured the relevance for South Africa of many of the research programmes supported and fostered by the MRC within the institution itself and in the academic institutions of the country.  He has provided an authoritative and respected presence for the MRC at innumerable international science forums where he is widely respected. Malegapuru has insisted with conviction on the highest ethical standards in the conduct of medical research, and he has exercised a major influence in the transformation of the South African science landscape.   The MRC budget grew three-fold under his direction, and the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative is an original and model example for public-private partnerships in the conduct of vitally needed basic and applied research.  Dr Makgoba has at times stood for scientific integrity against considerable interference and the scientific community is deeply aware and appreciative of that.  

It was with courage and integrity that Makgoba stood up against the pressures applied to him by calling for an end to the silly political support given to Virodene and to unscientific and damaging (to the public health) ideas about the non-infectious causes of HIV/AIDS.  Had he not done so, South Africa’s standing in the international scientific community would have been brought to ridicule.   Dr Makgoba’s clarity and forthrightness in dealing with these and other issues have served the country faithfully, and done much to guard the fine reputation of South African science and medicine.  

At a time when fewer and fewer medically trained men and women are devoting themselves to medical research Malegapuru Makgoba is a role model.   Furthermore, now that he is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, Dr Makgoba demonstrates, as have TB Davie, Stuart Saunders, Francois Retief, Mamphela Ramphele, Wieland Gevers, Robert Charlton and others before him, the special contribution that physicians can and have made in giving leadership to South African universities.

In his scientific work Dr Makgoba has, amongst his other achievements, been instrumental in demonstrating the importance of adhesion molecules in T cell function. He has shown that T cells adhere to target cells through the binding of lymphocyte function associated antigen-1 (LFA-1) to intercellular-adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) and also through binding of CD-2 to LFA-3.   This work has contributed permanently to an understanding of lymphocyte function.

Every South African should read Malegapuru William Makgoba’s personal and autobiographic account of his life in his book Mokoko, The Makgoba Affair: A Reflection on Transformation, published in 1997.  It provides insight into how he overcame difficulties and obstacles in his early schooling and professional life that would have proved insuperable for most. Instead, Dr Makgoba has responded to those difficulties and disadvantages by becoming a foremost medical scientist, who has devoted much of his life’s work to serving and adding to medical science in South Africa.

Dr Makgoba meets all the criteria set by the Academy for granting the gold medal, excellently.

Prof Peter Folb




In conferring upon Malegapuru William Makgoba its Gold Medal, the University of the Witwatersrand honours one of Africa’s most distinguished medical scientists. It also honours the first black President of the South African Medical Research Council, who has led that organization with distinction. In addition, the University salutes Dr Makgoba’s fearlessness in speaking out on behalf of science at a time when the voice of truth was critically threatened. 

Malegapuru William Makgoba was born in 1952 in Sekhukhuneland, now in the Northern Province. He was educated at rural schools before being admitted to the medical school of the University of Natal in 1971. After a distinguished academic career there, Makgoba proceeded to Oxford University where he obtained a DPhil in Human Immunogenetics in 1983. Dr Makgoba remained in the United Kingdom for more than a decade, during which time his science prowess won him a series of grants, awards and honours. He worked in leading research laboratories in Oxford, Birmingham and at the American Cancer Institute (NIH) and for six years held a post at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School of the University of London, where he was promoted to readership in 1990 and appointed Head of the Division of Molecular Endocrinology. In 1990 Dr Makgoba was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. 

Malegapuru Makgoba returned to South Africa in 1994 to take up a position as Deputy Vice-Chancellor at this University. His time in the executive proved turbulent and, after a much publicized and damaging dispute, he stepped down from his post and in 1996 he was appointed to a personal professorship in Molecular Immunology in the Faculty of Health Sciences. At the end of 1998 he left Wits to take over the Presidency of the Medical Research Council. 

Dr Makgoba has been a conspicuously successful leader of the MRC. He has substantially increased its funding base, almost doubling its budget since he took office. He commenced a vigorous process of restructuring and strategic alignment of the organization. He has been both an institutional and intellectual champion of the MRC’s vaccine initiative.

Barely a year after his appointment to the MRC Dr Makgoba played a leading role in a drama with acute medical, moral, intellectual and political implications. The AIDS epidemic was beginning to exact its fearsome toll upon South Africa, which has one of the highest prevalence of AIDS in the world. In this context, a crisis beset national public health policy, as well as popular understanding of HIV-AIDS when the country’s President publicly questioned the casual link between HIV and AIDS. 

Dr Makgoba took the lead in countering what he called “pseudoscience” and in condemning politically motivated interventions in the pandemic. He made a number of statements on the topic, perhaps most notably in an editorial in the prestigious journal Science in which he warned against “another entry in a lengthening list of political driven decisions regarding the South African AIDS crisis”. Makgoba’s critique of unscientific thinking as a shaper of national policy was unflinching and unequivocal:

There is little doubt that HIV causes AIDS, as has been demonstrated by many carefully conducted experiments and clinical case studies. In contrast there is no evidence that common African conditions such as poverty, malnutrition and many chronic infectious diseases by themselves, singly or in combinations, cause characteristics immunodeficiency typical of AIDS, that is, progressive depletion of CD4+ cells. To conflate causation with cofactors through a mixture of pseudoscientific statements is scientifically and politically dangerous in societies where denial, chauvinism, fear and ignorance are rampant. In such societies, the manipulation and misrepresentation of scientific facts only serve to fuel the epidemic. 

The clarion voice of truth speaking amidst the siren clamour of unscientific waywardness earned Makgoba a few friends in the political establishment. But it enhanced his standing as a medical scientist faithful to his discipline and to canons of scientific enquiry. In taking this stand, Makgoba occupied a unique position in South African public life. His professional eminence in the field of immunology, his profile as a public intellectual, and his passion for truth combined to an extraordinary degree at a moment in which a nation searched for answers.

The University is proud to recognize his stature as a scientist, his leadership of medical research, and his steadfast integrity in the face of public health disaster and national confusion by awarding Malegapuru William Makgoba the Universoty Gold Medal. 

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