By Patrick Leeman & Xoliswa Zulu

The Durban theatre community has reacted with great sadness to the death of the doyenne of speech and drama in KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Elizabeth Sneddon. She died on Thursday at the age of 98; her health had been frail for several years.

Professor Peter Scholtz, who succeeded Sneddon as head of the Speech and Drama Department at the former University of Natal, said thousands of students had been inspired by her example.

"It was a privilege to have been taught by her and to have been her friend. She was my mentor in every way," he said. Themi Venturas, owner of the Catalina Theatre at Wilson's Wharf and chairman of the KZN branch of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa, said a remarkable number of people trained by Sneddon had gone on to successful careers in the theatre.

Caroline Smart, editor of Durban Art Magazine and Art Smart website, said it was Sneddon's "dogged determination" which had ensured that speech and drama were introduced as subjects in the province's schools. Garth Anderson, a former student and founder of the Actor's Co-operative, said there could be no greater tribute to the professor than the large number of performers who had come under her influence and had become leading figures in the theatre.

The current head of the Department of Speech and Drama at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Mervyn McMurtry, said: "I cannot adequately describe the indefatigable, dogmatic, inspirational, wily, obstinate and flirtatious person that was Professor Elizabeth Sneddon.

"She had a profound influence on the lives, careers and aspirations of thousands of people, students, actors and academics."

Sneddon was born in Durban on October 26 1907 and her mother's great love for story-telling and poetry rubbed off on her as she became one of the most revered theatre lecturers of her time.

She was known by many as a woman of energy and had a mission in the 1940s to teach speech and drama, believing that the performing arts could bring people together as no other discipline could. Sneddon subsequently founded and became head of the department of Speech and Drama at the University of Natal in 1949, the first to be founded in Africa.

In 1981, the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the university was named after her in recognition of her contributions in promoting the importance of drama and creative activity at universities and schools in the country. She was educated at Durban Girls' College, the University of Glasgow (MA Honours Degree in English), University of London (post-graduate teacher training degree) and the University of Natal. She also attended the Royal Academy of Music for two years where she obtained her licentiate certificate.

Sneddon returned to South Africa and became the senior English teacher at St Cyprien's School in Cape Town. In 1950 she was awarded a Nuffield Dominion Travelling Fellowship to study speech and drama at British universities. Sneddon was a founding member of the Durban Arts Association and was chairwoman of the association since its inception in 1984. She founded the Theatre Audience Guild, the Theatre Workshop, started an open air theatre at the university and started an annual speech and drama festival for school children.

For 20 years, Sneddon taught drama over weekends to non-white students who were not accepted at white institutions. Funeral arrangements have not been finalised.