Tribute to Dr. Esther van den Berg

Esther van den Berg was born in Ermelo on 18 November 1941. Her father was employed at the Department of Labour and they had to move around quite a lot. Consequently, she was enrolled in seven different schools before matriculating during 1959 at Hoërskool Langenhoven, Pretoria. This is probably why she got bitten by that travel bug, but more about that later.

Originally, Dr Esther aspired to be a pharmacist. However, one month into her practical year (way back then it was required that you had to do a practical year before starting a degree), the powers that be informed her that she was no longer needed – their loss.

After taking an aptitude test at the University of Pretoria, she was informed that she would be the perfect entomologist. Esther then enrolled for a B.Sc., which she obtained in 1962. In March 1963, while aspiring towards a M.Sc. on the taxonomy of a beetle, she was appointed at the Department of Entomology at the University of Pretoria, then still part of the Department of Agricultural Technical Services.

In 1968 she moved to the Transvaal Region of the Department of Agricultural Technical Services because, since obtaining her M.Sc, she was deemed over qualified for her position at Tukkies. After a few months of intense boredom at the Department of Agricultural Technical Services, she approached Dr Lenie Meyer. Dr Meyer was aware that Dr Johan Furstenberg, who was employed at the Nematology Section, obtained a position at the University of Port Elizabeth so she approached Prof Juan Heyns to consider Esther as a candidate to replace Dr Furstenberg. Apparently, Prof Heyns at first indicated that he did not want to appoint a woman because, according to Prof Heyns, “women just want to get married and then leave”. He will then have to start training someone else from scratch. Fortunately for us, he changed his mind and decided to appoint Esther after all (A few years back, while celebrating Dr Esther’s sixtieth birthday, she enquired from Prof Heyns, to his delight, if she’s now allowed to get married).

Dr Esther joined the Nematology Section of PPRI during November 1968 and formed the pioneering taxonomic team consisting of Heyns, Kleynhans and Van den Berg. Prof Heyns started Dr Esther off on the genus Hoplolaimus and then on the rest of the family Hoplolaimidae and Pratylenchidae. During 1974 Dr Esther was the first to obtain a Ph.D. in Nematology at the University of Johannesburg (then the Rand Afrikaans University). Throughout her career she also specialised in the taxonomy of Criconematidae and Tylenchulidae.

Dr Esther published 147 peer-reviewed papers. Dr Esther is officially retired from the end of 2006 but continues to study the biosystematics of “her worms” and helps us in the identification of all “her” species weekly for three days per week.

Esther van den Berg was one of the founding members of the the Nematological Society of Southern Africa (NSSA) and one of the delegates that attended the first symposium at Nelspruit in 1973. Currently she is an honorary member of the NSSA. In 1997, Esther and her co-authors of the book “Plant nematodes in South Africa,” were awarded the Rhone-Poulenc award for “Achievement in Nematology”.

Lets get back to that travel bug business… Dr Esther have “jukkende voete”, an Afrikaans proverb which means that she has an intense desire to know what is around the next corner and to explore unknown places. During the last few decades Dr Esther travelled extensively. Her travels ranged from Alaska to Zambia and everywhere in between. In 2018 shevisited India. Besides travelling, her other passion is animals, especially those of the feathered variety (of which the guinea fowl, lapwings, weavers, barbets, sparrows and even the mynahs at Rietondale and Roodeplaat can attest to). Over the years we all got to know of her highly spoiled, but much loved budgie “children”.

Long ago we came to the conclusion that not only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, nematologists are also part of that group. We can now conclude that it is not only that little battery bunny that keeps on going and going and going, some nematologists (taxonomists??) are also like that.

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