South African Population Research
Infrastructure Network


Remembering Professor Peter Byass, a great friend of SAPRIN

21 August 2020

With a heavy heart, I want to tell you about and remember Peter Byass, a close colleague and mentor of SAPRIN, who passed away on Sunday (16 August 2020), from an unexpected heart attack at his home in the UK. 

 Picture by Mattias Pettersson

Peter was a Professor of Global Health at Umeå University, Sweden, Honorary Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He had a strong commitment to research infrastructure and invested a career in building and supporting Health and Demographic Surveillance Systems in Africa and Asia. 


Many scholars in Africa, Asia, UK, Sweden and further abroad will have stories to share about what Peter meant to them and their own development. I want to share three things. 


When Kobus and I were writing the early drafts of the SAPRIN proposal, Peter was an immense help and contributed many ideas to the shape and purpose of this health and population research infrastructure. We acknowledged this in writing at the time. 


For many years, he has had a close relationship with two SAPRIN nodes, namely the MRC/Wits Agincourt Research Unit in Mpumalanga, and the University of Limpopo DIMAMO (formerly Dikgale) Health and Demographic Surveillance System (HDSS) in Limpopo. He was always effective, productive, and nurturing of younger scientists. He built up a concept called DSS-ology, the study of HDSS platforms, which I see as extremely important going forward. He liked to use scientific methods to examine the most efficient and instructive ways to run these platforms. This was no mere hobby, and he hugely enabled scientific outputs for the INDEPTH Network and chaired its Scientific Advisory Committee. A great innovation he pioneered was the analytic algorithm, Inter-VA, to assess the most probable cause of death from community-based “verbal autopsies”. This strengthened information available on cause-specific mortality at population level and become the method of choice recommended by the WHO. 


Lastly, Peter was a well-known, beloved teacher of epidemiology and its analytic methods. He supervised my own PhD, and many others I know about, including the current Director General for the WHO, Dr Tedros Gebreyesus, the first African incumbent in this position. So, not only has he helped to build scientific infrastructure in low and middle-income countries, but also trained scientists to lead them. 


Now, I understand the gist of the African metaphor, “A great tree has fallen”. 


We convey our deep condolence to his wife, Margaret, and their sons and families in these most challenging times. 

Mark Collinson, SAPRIN co-Director