S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Versfeld, Dr Willem (geology)

Born: 6 March 1870, Cape Town, South Africa.
Died: 25 January 1939, Cape Town, South Africa.
Dr Willem Versfeld

Willem Versfeld entered the South African College, Cape Town, in 1886 and in 1888 passed the matriculation examination of the University of the Cape of Good Hope with honours. Continuing his studies through the South Africa College he was awarded the degree Bachelor of Arts (BA), with honours in mathematics and the natural sciences, by the university in 1891. Meanwhile he had been appointed assistant in the college's chemistry department under Professor P.D. Hahn* in 1889, succeeding J.C. Watermeyer*. After graduating he switched his attention to surveying and passed the university's certificate of proficienty in the theory of land surveying in 1893. That year he was responsible for the college's meteorological station, reporting his observations to the Meteorological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope. After resigning his post as assistant in April 1894 he passed an examination in the practice of land surveying in 1895 and, after successfully completing a trial survey, was licensed to practice as a land surveyor in 1897.

By this time Versfeld had decided to study mining engineering. He was one of the first group of five students who started their studies at the School of Mines of the South African College and passed the university's first, second and final mining examinations in 1896, 1897 and 1898 respectively, to obtain the Diploma in Minging Engineering. In 1897, while doing practical studies at Kimberley, he presented two slabs of ripple marked quartzite from Kimberley mine to the South African Museum in Cape Town. After completing his studies he practiced as a mining engineer in Johannesburg untill the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899. During this brief period he was an associate of the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa. In 1900 he was one of the first two candidates to be awarded the Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Mining Engineering by the University of the Cape of Good Hope. That same year he married Ethyl C.B. Shayer, with whom he had one daughter.

During and after the Anglo-Boer War Versfeld practiced as a land surveyor in the Cape Colony and became a member of the Institute of Land Surveyors of the Cape of Good Hope (established in 1904). In 1908 he resided in Sea Point, Cape Town. From July 1910 he worked in the Government Analytical Laboratory in Cape Town, his post being that of second grade chemical assistant from 1912. By 1910 he was a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was actively engaged in geological research. During the next few years he contributed several geological papers to the association's annual Report, dealing with the occurrence of gold in the Prince Albert Division of the Cape Province, (1910), the occurrence and distribution of manganese in the western district of the Cape Province (1911), some fissure coals of the Western Province (1914), some recent mineral discoveries in Namaqualand (1914), a rare mineral phosphate from Lobito Bay (1914), and, with G.F. Britten, the chemistry of the narra plant (Acanthosicyos horrida, 1915). However, his most important geological project was a study of the geological structure of the Karasburg area and Luderitz coast in German South West Africa (now Namibia). This work initially led to the publication of his "Notes on the geological formation of portions of German South West Africa" (Report, 1910). In 1913 the University of the Cape of Good Hope awarded him the degree Doctor of Science (DSc) for his thesis The geological structure of portions of German South West Africa. An extensive paper with the same title was published in the Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science for 1914 (pp. 87-238). His was the first South African doctoral thesis to deal with the geology of Namibia. Some years later his last geological publication, The base metal resources of the Union, appeared as Memoir No. 1 of the Department of Mines and Industries (Pretoria, 1919, 107p). In 1931 he entered the employ of the Cape Town municipality as a surveyor and was responsible for planning the township Goodwood.

Versfeld was a versatile person: A keen sportsman, stage performer, and writer of popular Afrikaans songs such as Waar kry jy daardie hoed and Die kat kom weer. He accompanied himself on the banjo, recorded several popular Afrikaans songs, played the flute in an amateur orchestra, and for seventeen years wrote a column entitled "Kaatjie Kekkelbek" for the South African Review. In 1911 he published Afrikaans translations of Mother Goose rhymes as Springbok rympies en stories voor die kinders.

List of sources:
Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Meteorological Commission, 1893.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Trustees of the South African Museum, 1897.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Surveyor-General, 1895, 1897.

Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa. Proceedings, 1899, Vol. 2, list of members and associates.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

Hall, A.L. A bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

Hugo, P.J., Schalk, K.E.L. & Barnes, S.J. Bibliography of South West African / Namibian earth science. Windhoek: Geological Survey, 1983.

Ritchie, W. The history of the South African College, 1829-1918. Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1918.

Rose, J.G. Paul Daniel Hahn: First memorial lecture. South African Industrial Chemist, November 1960, Vol. 14, pp. 204-206.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1915.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African who's who, 1908.

Union of South Africa. Public service list, 1914.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1893/4, 1903/4, 1915/6.

Compiled by: C. Plug