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Prof Elmi Muller

Inaugural lecture:

August 29, 2023 @ 17:3018:30

Fugitive reflections on pain, death, and surgery

A professional and academic curriculum vitae is a carefully curated story of success. It suggests inspired choices, directed efforts, cumulative achievements and competence, and a chronologically structured narrative of how one wants to be perceived professionally and academically.

But how does the reality of what medical clinicians do and experience differ from such an official version of herself that a professor of Surgery disseminates to encourage these sanctioned perceptions in patients and colleagues? And how do bodily frailty and mortality evoke an alternative mode of professional being and knowing to those stories we are expected to tell about our careers and our lives as clinicians and clinician-scholars to inspire confidence in those depending on us?

In her inaugural lecture, Prof Elmi Muller addresses this alternative, fugitive reality. She reflects on her career as a surgeon as well as an academic grounded in clinical practice in a way that sets up personal encounters with patients as a counterpoint to a career that has culminated in professional success and academic achievement. These reflections are about personal insecurity, sacrifice, loss and sadness. As a medical doctor, she learnt about pain and death from her patients, while also living her own life in the shadow of the deeply human awareness and fear of her own failings, bodily frailty and mortality, and the failings, frailties and mortality of those closest to her.

She indulges fugitive thoughts about encountering the suffering and pain of others, and the beautiful, unbearable interlacing of such experiences with what it means to be a surgeon and an academic whose work is grounded in a performance practice always intimately engaged with pain and mortality.


Short biography

Prof Elmi Muller is a transplant surgeon and the dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) – the first female to occupy this role. She is an international leader in the healthcare sector and the president of The Transplantation Society (TTS), the largest international society in the transplantation field. She holds both clinical and business qualifications in South Africa and England, as well as a fellowship in the United States.

Elmi’s groundbreaking research on the transplantation of HIV-positive donor organs into HIV-positive recipients has not only saved numerous lives in South Africa, but has also had an impact on healthcare policies globally. Her research has appeared in leading medical journals such as The Lancet, Nature Medicine and the New England Journal of Medicine. She has been awarded two esteemed U01 grants from the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the impact of utilising HIV-positive donors with different viral strains. The increased use of high-risk donors has opened up possibilities for expanding donor pools worldwide.

In addition, Elmi has extensively studied issues relating to organ trafficking, regulation, ethics and training. In this regard, she is a former chair of the Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group and a member of the World Health Organisation’s Transplantation Taskforce. Her research on human exploitation and trafficking for the purpose of organ removal addresses the lack of awareness of this challenging issue, and the need for specialised and technical skills to tackle it. Her pivotal position as an African-based clinician-scholar catapulted her into the centre of international efforts to deal with matters relating to organ regulation.

Elmi’s academic and scholarly impact also extends beyond the field of transplantation. She is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and an honorary member of the European Surgical Association. Her interdisciplinary research has resulted in numerous invitations to address conferences and meetings focused on surgery, infectious diseases, immunology, virology, and ethics. Her contributions to these fields have influenced global policies and laws.

She previously headed up the Transplant Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital and was the first woman to be appointed chair of General Surgery at the University of Cape Town.

Elmi holds a prestigious A1 rating with the South African National Research Foundation. In 2023, she received a gold medal from the South African Medical Research Council for her outstanding contributions to health research. She was also the Stellenbosch Business School’s alumna of the year for 2021 for societal impact.

She is married to Stephanus Muller, the director of the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation at SU. Their two children, Willem and Johan, and canine and feline friends Addie and Stephanus respectively complete the family.



August 29, 2023

Organizer (event)

Olivia Adams


JN de Villiers Boardroom, Clinical Building, Faculty Medicine and Health Sciences
Francie Van Zijl Drive
Cape Town, 7605 South Africa
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