A giant falls: UCT heart pioneer Bongani Mayosi dies at 51

28 July 2018 - 09:58 By Tanya Farber
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Bongani Mayosi in an operating theatre at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in 2017.
Bongani Mayosi in an operating theatre at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in 2017.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

It is impossible to count the ways in which Professor Bongani Mayosi — cardiologist‚ researcher‚ and dean of the health sciences faculty at the University of Cape Town — was a role model.

A loving husband and father‚ a pioneering researcher who discovered the gene that causes heart attacks‚ a brilliant and much-loved dean ... the list goes on.

Mayosi took his own life on Friday‚ aged 51‚ and a family statement on Saturday said he had been struggling with depression.

He made his name as one of the world’s top cardiology researchers when he discovered the gene that causes heart failure‚ and by the time he was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe in 2009‚ he had spent years working tirelessly to improve the health of people in developing countries.

Last year‚ when the National Academy of Medicine in the US elected him among its 80 new members in Washington‚ DC‚ he was the only African on the highly prestigious list.

His response at the time showed his passion not just for his work but for his family: “I am indebted to my mentors‚ my students‚ my collaborators and‚ above all‚ my wife and children who have supported and inspired me over the years‚” he said.

Since 2011‚ Mayosi had been advising Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi on the policy and strategy for health research in his capacity as the National Health Research Committee chairman. And for the past two years‚ he led the faculty of health sciences at UCT.

Born in Mthatha‚ Mayosi was inspired by his father‚ also a doctor‚ to help others. He started studying medicine‚ focusing on cardiology and all matters related to the heart.

He studied at what is now the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal‚ and it was there that he met his dermatologist wife‚ Nonhlanhla Khumalo.

The pair made their way to Port Elizabeth in 1990‚ where they worked at the Livingstone Hospital before leaving for Cape Town.

After a stint as a registrar in the mid-1990s‚ Mayosi took up a fellowship at Oxford University in the UK to complete a PhD – and it was there that his interest in cardiology and congenital heart disease flourished.

“I decided to embark on a research-focused career in the field of cardiology‚” he said‚ adding that statistically heart disease was the second-biggest killer in SA.

Returning to Cape Town in 2001‚ Mayosi assumed research‚ teaching and clinical responsibilities in internal medicine and cardiology at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital.

In 2006‚ at the age of 38‚ Mayosi became the first black person to be made professor and head of the Department of Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT. “We work where angels fear to tread‚” he said of the type of research he and his colleagues tackled.

When he and a team of researchers discovered the gene that causes heart failure‚ he said: “This is only the beginning. The recognition [of the discovery] means we are still at base camp but with a licence to climb Everest.”

Mayosi said after the discovery he hoped to save lives through prevention rather than cure.

While studying‚ Mayosi wondered why many people who smoked‚ drank and did no exercise did not suffer heart attacks‚ whereas people with healthy lifestyles could have an attack while running marathons.

He discovered the answer by isolating the heart attack gene. “My work is about isolating genetic factors‚” he said.

Apart from being world famous for his gene discovery‚ he was also highly regarded for his work on preventing rheumatic fever and on TB of the heart.

He led a groundbreaking series of multinational research studies into the management of pericarditis‚ including an African trial of the use of steroids in treating tuberculosis pericarditis. More recently‚ Mayosi led the first phase of a large-scale‚ multinational study of rheumatic heart disease.

On Friday‚ UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said‚ “It is with profound sadness that I announce the passing away on Friday‚ 27 July‚ of Professor Bongani Mayosi‚ Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town.

“The university is in touch with Professor Mayosi’s family‚ who is appreciative of all messages of support and condolences but requests that their privacy be respected during this difficult time.

“The family will liaise with the university for further communication at the appropriate time.”

  • Editor's note: This article has been changed since publication to reflect his family's confirmation that Mayosi took his own life
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