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    About & History

Prof Balinsky
John Matthews


A history of the association

This attempts to describe the humble beginnings, exciting changes and phenomenal progress the Society has gone through. Most of this information was supplied by the  address by the popular long-term Secretary of the ASSOCIATION, Mary Veenstra, at the 1996 Annual Conference in Durban on the history of EMSSA / MSSA and Prof Mike Witcomb's and Sonja Wolfe -Coote's memories and his letter to the Durban Conference of 1996.


The Electron Microscopy Society of Southern Africa had its beginnings in 1953 as a discussion group led by Dr. Heinz Wilsdorf at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). By 1956 there were five electron microscopes in South Africa.



1946 - RCA Console transmission electron microscope at the Veterinary Research Institute at Onderstepoort

bulletPhilips EM 100 at the CSIR
bulletSEI EM3 at the now closed down, Chamber of Mines Research Laboratories
bulletSEI EM3 at Poliomyelitis Research Foundation
bulletZeiss electron static microscope in the department of Physics at the University of Pretoria

Today, year 2002 onwards, we have around 100 electron microscope columns in operation with an average 4 new systems entering the market each year.

There are added to this a number of AFM, Confocal and microprobes, which are also costly systems to acquire and maintain.

 The RCA EM was used by Dr A Polson using shadow-casting and negative staining in early studies of viruses.


First meetings.

Dr Wilsdorf and his wife, who was a lecturer in Physics at the University of Witwatersrand, Koos Fourie and, I think, Jerry Thirwall met three times a year, with Prof. Fourie to discuss three main topics;

bulletSnags in the preparation of samples
bulletHow to maintain their instruments
bulletLatest developments in their fields of interest from literature they could get hold of.

 They were later joined by Dr. P.J. Jackson and John Talbot from the chamber of Mines laboratories and Drs John Hampton and Michael Silk from the Polio Research (Now known as NIV, National Institute of Virology) and their colleagues.

 Getting Formal

As the group got bigger they decided to formalise the meetings and John Talbot was appointed as the first secretary/ treasurer to keep the minutes of the meetings and also monitor the expenses.

Prof Balinsky  

In 1958, or was it 1959, Prof Borris Balinsky of the department of Zoology of Univ. of Witwatersrand  (Wits) spent his sabbatical leave at Yale University, USA, to learn more on the techniques of electron microscopy which he wished to apply to his experiments and research in embryology.

Prof. Balinsky, an indefatigable researcher and already world renowned as an embryologist, arranged the installation of a double condenser Siemens Elmiskop in his department soon after his return from Yale.


However, we in the life sciences were told quite emphatically that, although it was housed in the Zoology department, it was to be manned by the Department of Physics, and in fact, the unit was actually an outpost of that department forever more!

 J W Matthews

The man in question at the “outpost” was John Matthews, protégé of Prof F R N Nabarro.

 Prof Nabarro had only just arrived at Wits and had assisted John as one of the fabulous four that had obtained first class Honours degrees, with distinction.

John grew to guard this microscope jealously as he slowly got engrossed in his famous experiments on epitaxy. At first, us poor mortals of life sciences, were not allowed to “drive” the EM unassisted.

John sat in somewhat dour silence as he scanned our methacrylate sections for a little bit of tissue sample while we were only allowed to peer quietly through one of the side windows on the TEM screen chamber.

There were no automatic exposure systems on the TEMs of those days, so I still remember counting 1 crocodile, 2 crocodile, 3 crocodile …. As the screen was lifted.

Therefore I have very fond memories of counting, hunting, skinning and breeding crocodiles in that TEM room with John.

The growth of the Society and IFSEM

The society grew apace during the sixties with generous support of the commercial firms who kindly supplied the microscopes.

In 1962 Ralph Yodaiken of the department of Pathology at Wits Medical school, attended a meeting of the International Federation of Societies of Electron Microscopy.

On his return, he suggested that a properly constituted society should be formed and then apply to IFSEM for membership to give us all a broader outlook.

An inaugural meeting was held at the end of that year with 30 – 40 delegates attending. Oh and then already the partying was pretty good!

In 1966 the Microscopy Society of Southern Africa was admitted to IFSEM at a meeting in Tokyo. Our delegate to this meeting was Prof. JJ Theron of the University of Pretoria, then working on nutrition under the Medical research council

The first Chairman/ President, 1962

Koos Fourie was then elected as the first president of the society and John Talbot held his position of secretary and treasurer. It was this meeting that also resulted in the first constitution of MSSA.

 Encouraging neighbouring countries

The most important decision in that first constitution was that the society was to be multiracial and also include our immediate neighbouring countries. Those days it was still Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola. In fact the society had members from all three these countries right up until the mid seventies.

 The first December meetings

At first, meetings were being held each year in either Johannesburg or Pretoria, usually at one of the Universities or at the CSIR. December seemed to be the best month so as not to clash with meetings of other societies.

Plenary sessions were addressed by the more experienced researchers amongst us and short abstracts of the papers were published in the S.A. Journal of Science.

1970 was a momentous year for the society. Yes we moved the meeting (the 9th) outside of our usual stamping grounds of the Rand and went down to Durban.

In fact it was at this Durban conference that a more formal program was first printed; with summaries of the papers; our first invited speaker from outside of South Africa addressed us.

First invited speaker

I am actually not sure who’s inspiration it was to invite Prof. Morris Karnovsky from Harvard Medical school USA, but he was our first official invited speaker.

As an ex-pat South African , he was an immediate success with the result that variation on the theme of his fixative are still used in our laboratories today.

 1971 saw the first proceedings being printed in much the same format as it is today. The first editor was Dr Jim Murphy of the CSIR.

Since then our meetings have taken us to nearly every university campus in South Africa and we have even been to the Kruger National Park, Newlands Hotel Cape Town and the water play park of Warmbaths.


Education, training and student involvement have always been a strong emphasis of the Society.

It has been interesting to look through old programs of past meetings to see how more complex our workshops at these meetings seem to be getting.

The first workshop presented by the Society was actually held in July of 1970 in the then “new” Department of Physics at UNISA (University of South Africa). The topic was an epon embedding, section cutting and basic methods in the darkroom.

Contrast this with what is presented today!

 International conferencing

Over the years of the Society drawing in new members, we have also been very successful in attending all sorts of international conferences in the respective fields of microscopy. However the pinnacle has to be the fact the MSSA hosted the 15th International Conference on Electron Microscopy in 2002. This was an experience like none other. It was a period of some 10 years of bidding, 4 years of organising and 1 week of enjoying seeing the first international conference on Microscopy in Southern Africa.


Mike Witcomb and Sonja Wolfe-Coote  -- Electron Microscopy in Southern Africa 1996
Tom Mulvey  -- Advances in Imaging and Electron Physics. Academic Press New York Vol 96, pp 323 -345

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