Dr Robert Broom, SA paleontologist who discovered the “Mrs Ples” skull, is born

Friday, 30 November 1866

Robert Broom was born in Paisley, Scotland, on 30 November 1866. He was educated as a doctor, specializing in the field of midwifery, but he was fascinated by the origin of mammals and used his medical profession to support him while he travelled the world. After traveling to Australia, he settled in South Africa in 1897.

From 1903 to 1910, he worked as a professor of zoology and geology at Victoria College in Stellenbosch, but was forced to give up his position for promoting the belief in evolution. He then began to practice medicine in the Karoo, but continued his work around mammals and evolution theory. His work was so highly regarded that in 1920, he was made a 'Fellow of the Royal Society'.

Broom's interest in paleontology was further fuelled after Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child, a fossil given the species name Australopithecus africanus, which means "southern ape of Africa".

In 1934, upon the request of General Jan Smuts, Broom accepted the position of assistant paleontologist at the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria. It was there that he began to search for early hominids, seeking more specimens of Dart's spectacular Australopithecus africanus. In 1936, with his students, he found the fragments of six hominids in the 'Cradle of Humankind' area (Sterkfontein Valley landscape in both western Gauteng and the North West Province).

Since 1936, thousands of fossils that show human evolution over the past 3.5 million years have been found, but one of the most significant discoveries was made in 1947 by Broom and John Robinson. They discovered the 'most complete' australopithecine skull, which Broom named Paranthropus robustus, nickname Mrs Ples.

All of these discoveries assisted in substantiating Dart's previous work. Broom published his monograph in 1946, which led to most scientists finally accepting that the australopithecines were in fact hominids, and not apes.

Robert Broom died in 1951, having made an enormous contribution to the study of prehistoric life, which broadens our understanding of human existence.

References:
• >Biographies Robert Broom [online] Available at: talkorigins.org [Accessed 21 November 2013]
•  Wallis, F. (2000). Nuusdagboek: feite en fratse oor 1000 jaar, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau
•  World Heritage Sites: The Cradle of Humankind from South African History Online [online], available at: sahistory.org.za [accessed November 2009]

Last updated : 21-Nov-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011