Tribute to Emeritus Professor Ernst Sonnendecker

Ernst Sonnendecker was an only child born in Piet Retief of German immigrants. From a young age, he showed above average intellectual  abilities and managed to enter Wits Medical School at the tender age of 16 years. Following his undergraduate years at Wits he enrolled for three years as a registrar in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Pretoria, obtained his specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist registration, wrote his MRCOG examination, was awarded the MRCOG Part 2 gold medal, and went into private practice with Frans Neser for a number of years.

Ernst then decided he needed to move back to academic medicine, left private practice, returned to his beloved Alma Mater and joined the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the old Johannesburg General Hospital where he joined Leon van Dongen, Basil Bloch, Gordon Grant, Aubrey Naylor, Hans Glietenberg, and the fearless  Dr Charliewood, amongst others, and moved through the ranks until he was finally promoted to Chief Specialist and Academic Head of the Department. He remained at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital until his retirement in 1997. He was then appointed Emeritus professor, moved to the western Cape, taking up residence in Hermanus, was appointed on a part time basis at the University of Stellenbosch and undertook some private practice at Vincent Pallotti Hospital.

Ernst Sonnendecker landed running at the Johannesburg Hospital and very quickly developed an awesome reputation that not only preceded him, but made students, registrars and consultants very cautious, wary and break out into sweats when announced that he was coming around for ward rounds.  His “Herman Hermits”  60s hair-cut, his  bow tie, his two-tone shoes and his pin stripped suits became his land mark and distinguished him in the far distance. He had an amazing memory, outstanding knowledge, loved quoting, telling anecdotal stories and emphasizing the minutest detail whether pertaining to obstetrics or gynaecology. During his ward rounds, registrars tried their hardest, and fought, to get positions “behind the crowd” so they could dodge the questions and survive to see another day ! Even consultants were known to surreptitiously shed some tears or urgently seek the use of incontinent nappies because of “ grande ward rounds escapades”. Interestingly, Ernst always felt that a farming tractor accident had curtailed his memory and ability to “find the hidden facts” deep in his head. We, on the other hand, were grateful to that tractor – because of the tractor we did, on the odd occasion, get something right. At the end of each weekly grande ward round, he loved to chat with his colleagues and enjoy a cup of tea and cheese and tomato sandwiches.

He was a trail blazer in establishing surgical strategies for treating women with ovarian cancer and very soon his “ Double Decker surgical escapades” on Mondays became weekly land marks. Not only was he renowned to remove all the tumour deposits,  he was also known to actively chase every red blood cell during the procedure which showed any semblance of trying to escape, and as a result was a great proponent of haemostatic sutures and cauterization. Without doubt, Ernst made an immense contribution to  undergraduate teaching , postgraduate teaching, to the literature pertaining to managing women with ovarian cancer as well as his contribution to the surgical strategies thereof.

He was very popular with the undergraduate students and was often asked  to address the students at their functions. His Germanic upbringing made him meticulous, pedantic, thorough and a stickler for detail. He loved his Mont Blanc fountain pen, which was always in his white coat pocket and he always wore a Longines watch. He demanded a lot, but he also achieved a lot. He was not only a country wide examiner of undergraduate and postgraduate students, an examiner of the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a founder member of the South African Menopause Society and its first president, he was also a renowned lecturer being invited to local and international congresses. At congresses, he would always be found in a seat in the front rows, have his ever-present leather case filled with paper and different coloured pens, be ever so attentive, take copious notes and be known to always pose questions at the end of the lecture.

His undergraduate examination meetings were notorious, taking hours and hours to discuss and re-discuss the examination results and were known for some examiners from outside Johannesburg to miss their flights home in the evening of the examinations. Nevertheless, we all accepted these prolonged meetings because we knew that all students were given the best deal and every effort was being made to ensure fairness and correctness. On the negative side however, Ernst, “since your retirement, we have never again known the pleasure of examiners having lunch at the Sunnyside Hotel or having home cooked meals for lunch during the examinations. Since then, the best it has got, has been finger luncheons”. You always provided exemplary hospitality.

He was so proud of his family and was always supported by his beloved wife, Cynthia. She was a friend, a confidante and his pillar of strength ; always at his side and ever so supportive.

We are very grateful that Ernst Sonnendecker came back to his Alma Mater after having spent a fair amount of time in Pretoria. He then spent so many years guiding us in Johannesburg academically, administratively and from a research point of view.

It is over twenty-three years since he departed from Johannesburg and moved on to the Western Cape, but he was not forgotten. In 2014, he was awarded a “Fellow Ad Eundum”  by the CMSA for the significant contribution he had made during his career to Women’s Health, and we are not only very proud, but we are very grateful that a significant amount of his contribution made was during his time with us in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Witwatersrand.

Ernst died on 17 January 2021 and we have no doubt that in the next world, he will continue to wear the same attire, continue to sit in the front rows at congresses, continue taking copious notes with his Mont Blanc fountain pen and will always make sure he will ask questions that only artificial intelligence will be able to answer.

We salute you Ernst, we thank you for making a difference and we thank you for having tried to improve our lives and that of our patients. We thank you for the legacy. We learned a lot. We will remember.

Our deepest condolences to Cynthia, his wife, Hein, his son, Brigitte, his daughter, his extended family and his loving grandchildren.

FRANCO GUIDOZZI and TRUDY SMITH