A Cape Town-born scientist who did his first chemistry experiments in the family’s outside bathroom in District Six has gone on to be awarded one of Britain’s highest honours for his work.
Rashid Domingo, 72, who now lives in Wales, published his autobiography Per Ardua ad Astra (Through Adversity to the Stars) this month.
Friends who heard his story encouraged him to write a book after he retired and he finally bought a laptop in 2006 and wrote an opening paragraph. They read it and responded: “Great, where’s the rest?”
The book includes Domingo’s recipes for peanut chutney, tomato smoor, and yoghurt condiment. In a poignant and absorbing story, he tells of growing up in De Villiers Street in District Six, his many academic achievements, national and international awards, and the hard work that went into starting up and running a biochemical company in the UK.
In Standard 9 at Trafalgar High he became fascinated by chemistry and turned the family’s outside bathroom into his first laboratory He recalls putting on his best English accent and trying to sound like a woman when ordering chemicals and equipment for an experiment at one of the stores in town. He told the person on the line taking his order it was not necessary for them to drop off the goods and he would send “my boy with the money”.
He started off in medicine at the University of Cape Town in 1954 but later switched to chemistry “Instead of becoming a brilliant doctor you will become a brilliant chemist” a friend assured him. He graduated in 1959.
He emigrated in 1967 because of the apartheid laws which thwarted his progress. He was the sixth of seven children. His father Achmat was a skilled poster writer and musician who made money on the side, travelling to country towns showing silent movies, while providing music if there was a piano. His mother, Rukia, was a teacher.
In his dedication in the book he thanks them, among others, for giving him “the wonderful two Gs – genes and guidance”.
He started his own company, Biozyme in 1971, a company which at one time was the second largest producer of enzymes for clinical diagnostics in the world. Along the way the company won the British Chamber of Commerce Export Award in 1978, followed by the coveted Queen’s Award for Export in the same year. He was then invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen and members of the royal family.
He wrote that the royal family mixed with the guests. “I looked over to where the queen was standing … and I noticed that she was standing, out of her shoes, with a gin and tonic in her hand. I was delighted to see that this lady was human.”
In 1987 he was surprised when he received a letter from the queen saying that she would confer the MBE on him for his work.