Long-serving doctor dies at 90

Dr John Sonnenberg passed away last week.

One of Sea Point’s longest-serving doctors,
Dr John Sonnenberg, has passed away at the age of 90.

The man, who saved numerous lives and delivered many babies in the old District Six and on the Atlantic Seaboard, died in his own bed on Sunday January 20.

Dr Sonnenberg worked as a general practitioner for over 60 years nearly 50 of which he was in partnership with Dr Solly Lison. It was perhaps the longest union in medical practice in the history of Sea Point. He retired under two years ago.

Dr Sonnenberg passed away in the same road he was born in, Hof Street, Oranjezicht. During the last few years he lived in a retirement complex, Berghof, a few blocks away from the old Hof Street Nursing Home, where he saw the first light of day.

Dr Sonnenberg was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks back.

He spent his childhood in Green Point opposite the common, playing on the fields on which cows grazed and catching crayfish in Three Anchor Bay, where he also swam. The rambling old house where he spent most of his childhood was called Morokani.

His mother, Ivy Sonnenberg, was a housewife who raised four children and his father, Fritz Sonnenberg, was a lawyer who was once the mayor of Cape Town. The street next to the Cape Town Stadium is named after him. His father was also the founder of the law firm Sonnenberg Hoffman and Galombik (today Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs).

Dr Sonnenberg attended school at Christian Bothers College and two of his fellow school pupils were Dr Stuart Saunders, former UCT Vice-Chancellor, and the actor Nigel Hawthorne.

In an interview with Atlantic Sun in 2017 (“Doctor’s impressive medical record”, May 18), he said that after qualifying (at UCT) in 1951, he did his internship at Groote Schuur Hospital and in 1953 he worked as a junior medical officer at City Hospital for infectious diseases, near where the medical museum is now in Green Point.

“One worked extremely hard for long periods, day and night. That’s what happens when you are newly qualified – you used to be on call for 36 hours at a time. It could be very tough,” he said at the time.

He told the Atlantic Sun that many of the antibiotics that people use today weren’t around when he started practising.

“They started becoming more developed in the 50s and 60s. The other tremendous advance was with anaesthetics, which became more and more sophisticated. It enabled surgeons to perform operations on patients that they were previously unable to do because of the risk.”

At the City Hospital, he stayed on the premises in a building where Dr Chris Barnard also lived. Later he moved to a house on the Main Road of Green Point and he served as the railway doctor to nearby families where the Breakwater Cottages were. These cottages were in what was called District One in the old days, situated in and around where Beluga’s Restaurant is.

Ultimately Dr Solly Lison joined him as a partner in 1970 in the old United Building in Regent Road, Sea Point. He had a love for Valiant cars and on Sundays, his three children would join him as he went on his various rounds to patients and hospitals.

Throughout his life, he worked tirelessly for the poor and for his patients. Up to about two years ago when he still ran his practice, he also made house calls.

When a patient died, he would attend the funeral. He would write a sympathy card or phone the bereaved family.

Dr Sonnenberg would rush at 2am to attend to a sick patient.

Over the decades he saw the elderly who could not afford medical aids anymore for nothing. Domestic workers and others who were short of cash were treated for free.

He worked for roughly 30 years on the Cape Town City Council, while running a busy practice, trying to improve the lot of the underprivileged and marginalised.

He was a board member of the Somerset Hospital, Booth Memorial Hospital, St Luke’s, as well as Chairman of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra from 1995 to 1998.

In the early days, Thursday afternoons were reserved for golf. Later in his life, he became a keen bowler. He was an avid bird watcher, read widely, and enjoyed talking about politics.

Until recently, he would climb the stairs in a building, instead of taking the lift. Dr Sonnenberg was a quiet-spoken man who had a mischievous sense of humour and loved frequenting old restaurants like Mario’s in Green Point. One of his favourite dishes was offal.

He met his wife Jerry Jones in 1951 when she was a nursing sister at Groote Schuur Hospital. They married in 1952 and remained married for 60 years. He passed away exactly on the same day his late wife died, five years ago.

His son, Graham, says: “My father never forgot a patient or a family he treated. When Facebook became part of life, I received messages from all over the world from people who said he was a pillar of strength to their entire family. I would inform him and he would remember them even if he saw them half-century back.”

Dr Sonnenberg is survived by his children Penny, Pamela and Graham, two grandchildren, Jessica and Stephen, and many friends and ex-patients.