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Department of University Relations

Nobel laureate recollects UPís contribution to his scientific career

By Nicolize Mulder

Posted on 30 October 2013

A copy Prof Michael Levittís final results from 1963.
A copy Prof Michael Levittís final results from 1963.

A winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry started his academic career at the age of 15 at the University of Pretoria in Afrikaans. Much has been said about Prof Michael Levitt in the past three weeks since he was named joint winner of the prestigious international award, but nowhere has it been mentioned that thereís a small gap in the CV of the American-British-Isreali biophysicist and professor in structural biology at Stanford University in the United States.

Prof Levitt, who’s work focuses on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of protein, DNA and RNA molecules responsible for life at its most fundamental level, this week – after being inundated with communications and congratulations – confirmed that he spent his first year at university at UP half a century ago.

“I was a keen student and happy to be at a University where the lecturers not only lectured, but also responded to and nurtured their students. I was introduced to adult learning when I was quite young and I have no doubt that my first year at the University of Pretoria contributed to my store of scientific knowledge,” Prof Levitt said in an email to UP’s Media Office this week.

The fact that Prof Levitt spent 1963 studying maths, chemistry and physics was brought to the University’s attention by his mother, Ms Gertrude Levitt (98).

She wrote to UP to thank Prof Wolfgang Schilz, a previous head of the Department of Chemistry at UP, for the contribution he made to her son’s career. Ms Levitt wrote that her son passed his Matriculation Examination at the age of 15 after he was tutored privately due to his boredom in the classroom. She wanted to send him to an English university, but they were not prepared to enrol such a young student.

“I then went to see Prof Schilz and told him of the difficulties I was experiencing. He gave me a sympathetic hearing and after meeting Michael accepted him to immediately start at Tukkies,” Mrs Levitt said.

In his email, Prof Levitt said that he was interested in investigating and experimenting from a very early age. “As I became older science became, and has remained, my overwhelming interest and passion.”

Prof Levitt passed all his subjects in his first year with distinction. He was also offered a bursary. He did not, however, continue his studies at UP as his mother moved to London to be closer to her brother. There Prof Levitt attended Kings College and obtained a degree in physics.

Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, his mother wrote to UP: “We would be grateful if you could contact Prof Schilz to tell him what Michael has accomplished and how much I appreciate and thank him for acting on his hunch that this boy was worth helping and also give him our best wishes.”

 



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