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Walter Schaffer

Walter Schaffer (1906 - 1987)

Head of Department of Physics, University of Cape Town
1957 - 1971


[written by J.F.W. Juritz (UCT). Published in the "MESON", November 1987. The author is emeritus associate professor in the Department of Physics, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch,7700.]


Walter Schaffer was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1906, the third of the six children of Herman and Clara Schaffer. The family emigrated to South Africa in 1910, and Walter received his schooling at Queen's College, Queenstown, where he was the Dux in his matriculation year.

His university career at Rhodes University College, Grahamstown, was necessarily protracted. Owing to difficult circumstances he had to interrupt it for lengthy periods to finance his studies by working as a motor mechanic and salesman. Here he doubtless acquired his lifelong interest in, and expert knowledge of, everything to do with motoring. He was awarded the Bailey bursary and served on the Rhodes SRC.

After taking the MSc and PhD degrees, Walter taught at Victoria Boys High School, now Graham College. In 1932 he married Gladys Levinsohn, whom he had met through a common interest in mountaineering. During the war he served with the South African Air Force and attained the rank of Captain, doing inportant meteorological work in North Africa. His subsequent publications include a number on meteorology.

In July 1946 he was appointed as a lecturer in Physics at UCT. He soon rose to senior lecturer, became an associate professor in 1954, and in June 1957 succeeded Professor R W James as head of the Physics department. This post he occupied until his retirement in December 1971.

During his tenure he continued the X-ray crystallographic research tradition established by Professor James, and campaigned strenuously for the installation of the first electron microscope.

He encouraged research, and also took a benevolent interest in the affairs of his staff and students, his avuncular attitude earning him the affectionate sobriquet of ``Uncle''. This was nowhere better seen than during his four year wardenship of Driekoppen Residence, where it was reputed that he was able to address every student individually by name.

His considerate, quiet but firm, and eminently reasonable attitude towards problems stood him in good stead during his period of service as Dean of the Science Faculty, and he was adept at handling sometimes fractious contenders with effective and efficient diplomacy. His management of Faculty meetings was admirable.

He was appointed Assistant Principal for Academic Affairs from January 1969. This appointment was renewed after his retirement from the Physics department, but in mid-1972 the Schaffers left for Israel to be nearer their grandchildren.

During his retirement in Israel, Walter worked as a translator, and was able to pursue his abiding interest in archaeology and in biblical studies. He died in Haifa, Israel in April 1987, a few months after the death of his wife, Gladys.

Those who knew him will always remember him for his complete integrity and intellectual honesty, his absolute indifference to personal gain or financial considerations, and his unassuming modesty. He was a man it was a pleasure to have known.