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Citation: Duncan Mitchell

- By Wits University

Duncan Mitchell was born in Germiston, South Africa, in 1941.  After matriculating, he completed a BSc degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1963, majoring in Physics, Mathematics and Philosophy of Science. Following his BSc Honours in physics, Mitchell went on to complete his MSc degree in Biophysics, with a dissertation entitled “Infrared optical properties of excised human skin”. For his PhD, Mitchell registered in the Department of Physics at Wits but under the co-supervision of the highly respected physiologist, Cyril Wyndham.

This was a time of great tumult for the gold mining industry in South Africa.  As the industry had grown and mines got deeper, fatalities among underground workers rose, with most of the deaths caused by heatstroke. In 1968, Mitchell joined Wyndham’s team as a member of staff of the Human Sciences Laboratory to study body temperature regulation in adult men, in conditions closely simulating those in deep level mining. Mitchell brought a deep understanding of physical principles to this research endeavour and the intellectual ability to apply these principles to biological systems. Mitchell built a sophisticated wind-tunnel for human experimentation, the first of its kind in the world, and set about determining the tolerances to heat of adult men. This produced seminal work on the principles of measurement of heat transfer from the body of humans and, at the time, the Human Sciences Laboratory of the Chamber of Mines was considered the most highly reputed facility in the world for the study of human thermoregulation. Mitchell completed his PhD in 1972 and, in the same year, he was awarded his first gold medal for research by the Mine Ventilation Society of South Africa.

In 1973, he took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute for Medical Research in London.   Here, with Dr Richard Hellon of that Institute, Mitchell studied neurophysiological techniques for uncovering underlying mechanisms of somatosensory sensations, including that of pain. He also developed an interest in the physiology of fever.

In 1975 Duncan Mitchell returned to South Africa and joined the Department of Medical Physiology at Wits, as a Senior Lecturer. He was appointed Professor of Physiology in 1976, a title he held for more than thirty years, until his formal retirement from the University in 2006. Mitchell founded his own research unit, which was later recognised by the University Research Committee as the “Brain Function Research Unit”.  Mitchell’s research had developed into an interest in the physiology of brain functions, specifically those of temperature regulation, fever, pain and sleep. Under Mitchell’s leadership, the group gained substantial international recognition and has become a world leader in the fields of fever and temperature regulation, as well as, in the remote sensing of physiological variables in conscious and free-ranging animals. This research has demanded the highest level of data and measurement technology and is now placed at the forefront of assessing physiological responses to climate change in animals.

Duncan Mitchell’s first love is research, but a close second is teaching. In 1977, Mitchell was the first recipient of the Daubenton Prize for teaching, an award made by the medical student body of the Faculty of Health Sciences. In 1978 he became Associate Director (part-time) of the newly established Division of Medical Education in the Faculty of Medicine. In 1994 he was a recipient of the PV Tobias/Convocation Distinguished Teachers Award. In 2001, on the occasion of Mitchell’s 60th birthday, the School of Physiology established the “Duncan Mitchell Prize for Physiology Honours” for the most distinguished BSc Honours graduate in physiology, in the Faculty of Science, in recognition of Mitchell’s particular contribution to the teaching of Honours students. Mitchell has also supervised more than forty Masters’ and Doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to positions of seniority and prestige in research and higher education institutions throughout the world.

Duncan Mitchell’s research career, which has spanned more than forty years at Wits, also spanned several disciplines. He was able to move with intellectual ease from physics to physiology to medicine to zoology and to eco-physiology, largely through doing what he did best - continually applying physical principles to biological systems. He received the British Association Medal of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was a winner of one of the “Four Outstanding Young South Africans” award – both in 1980, and represented South Africa at an international meeting of ‘Outstanding Young Person Award Winners’ in Taipei in 1981. He was the first South African to be elected a corresponding member of the American Physiological Society and one of the first South Africans to be elected to the membership of the Physiological Society of the United Kingdom. He represented South Africa at the General Assembly of the International Union of Physiological Sciences in Sydney, Australia in 1983, again in Vancouver, Canada in 1986, and in Helsinki, Finland in 1989. He was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1984 and an Honorary Fellow of the Physiological Society of Southern Africa in 2003.

From the discipline of zoology came his second gold medal - he was awarded the prestigious  Gold Medal of the  Zoological Society of South Africa, in recognition of his scientific contribution to zoological research in South Africa, in 2000.

In 1984, the first year of its introduction of a rating system for researchers, the Foundation for Research Development (now the National Research Foundation), awarded him an A rating, a rating he has held for 22 years, probably the longest of any A-rated researcher at Wits. He continues to be the only A-rated physiologist in South Africa. In 1997, during the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Jubilee year, he was awarded a Jubilee Medal. In 2011, Mitchell won the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, considered as one of the most prestigious research awards in South Africa.

He has served the Medical Research Council by being a member of its Board and award committees over a period of 25 years. Concurrently, he served the National Research Foundation, before that the Foundation for Research Development, and before that the CSIR, on their evaluation panels, award committees and the Senate of the NRF. He still chairs the Appeals Committee for the NRF. In 2007 he was one of the NRF President’s Awardees. He has been on the Council of the Royal Society of South Africa, and was a founder member of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa.

Duncan Mitchell is South Africa’s most cited and distinguished physiologist. He is Wits University’s longest-standing A-rated researcher. He has held office in South Africa’s most prestigious scientific and research societies. He has represented South African scientists and physiologists at international assemblies. He held distinguished positions in the University, including serving as Head of Department, Assistant Dean for Research, a member of the Boards of both the Faculties of Science and Health Sciences and their Executive Committees, the Senate of the University and its Academic Board, many of the University’s and Faculty’s committees, and has served on the University’s Council. He has selflessly and enthusiastically sought to further the careers of young students, postgraduates and scientists so that they too can become distinguished. Duncan Mitchell’s career has been one of excellence in teaching and research, and in leadership and service to the scientific community of this country. His unfailing dedication to this University has brought great distinction to it. It is entirely fitting that the University recognises his contribution by conferring on him the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.