Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Trustee of the Wolfson Foundation, recently gave the Wolfson Memorial Lecture at UCT.

The Wolfson Memorial Lecture was established in memory of the late Lord Wolfson of Marylebone, founder and former Chairman of the Wolfson Foundation who have been generous donors to the UCT Trust since the 1990s.

Over the years, the Foundation has supported capital projects at UCT such as new residence buildings, refurbishment of chemistry laboratories and, most recently, the Centre of Drug Discovery and Development, or H3D.

The Lasker Award-winning biologist was a little bit surprised by the breadth of what he saw on his recent visit to the University of Cape Town. From clinical to basic science, cutting edge drug discovery research to high-tech medical device manufacture, to research in townships on some of the country’s most pressing health issues, there was much to digest. Add to that a walk up Table Mountain, a stroll around the Waterfront, and you have the perfect recipe for a very rich three days.


“I’ve had a terrific time of great variety and seen all sorts of interesting and stimulating things on the biological and medical chemistry front. Overall I’m very impressed with what’s being achieved and attempted here” says Sir Peter Ratcliffe.

A University of Oxford Professor, Sir Ratcliffe is well known for ground-breaking research into the inner workings of the body’s intricate oxygen sensing system. This work has led to the possibility of making drugs that can manipulate how the body manages and delivers oxygen; a crucial step since most diseases involve the deficiency of oxygen supply to tissues.  However exciting the prospects, his research has led him to conclude that biology is very complicated. Something he attributed to the way human beings are designed in a lecture delivered at the Wolfson Lecture Theatre at the end of his visit.

“We are not made through intelligent design. You’re made by haphazard Darwinian evolution and therefore the things that you find out in biology are often unexpected and the systems are not easy to dissect.”

As a result, experimentation is important to derive useful conclusions at every level, whether they’re molecular, physiology, microbiology or medicine. In biology, the complexity of questions, among other things, is a prevalent similarity between universities in the UK and South Africa said, Sir Peter Ratcliffe.

However, it is the differences that present opportunities for collaboration. “I’m interested in encouraging epidemiology, genetics, basic studies of disease that open new areas. I’ll take all these things I’ve seen back to Oxford and to the Francis Crick Institute where one of the more pleasant tasks of being a senior scientist is making introductions to people who subsequently get on well.”

It is this kind of collaborative effort that has produced the interesting science and various facilities that have benefited from Wolfson Foundation funding, which has totalled over  R35m between 1995 and 2016.

For Sir Ratcliffe, the visit was one characterised by great diversity and optimism for the outcomes of the interaction of different scientific fields at UCT.