Professor Emeritus Phillip Tobias

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Chair of NUSAS, medical doctor, palaeo-anthropologist, lecturer, author, geneticist, scientist, Professor Emeritus of Anatomy, head of the research department at the Sterkfontein Caves

Title: 
Professor Emeritus
First name: 
Phillip
Last name: 
Tobias
Date of birth: 
14 October 1925
Date of death: 
7 June 2012
Location of death: 
Johannesburg, South Africa

Lives of Courage

Phillip Valentine Tobias was born on October 14, 1925. He went to St Andrew School and later moved to Durban High School in 1939 where he matriculating in 1942. At the age of 15 even before he finished his schooling, he decided to study medicine after his sister, Val, who was 21, died of diabetes.  He asked the family doctor why his sister and his grandmother had the disease while he and his mother did not. The reply was that there was no one in South Africa suitably qualified in genetics to answer the question. Upon completing his matric, Tobias enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand's Medical School in 1944, later branching into genetics. During his student years, Tobias was also active in anti-apartheid politics, and was the chair of the National Union of South African Students  (NUSAS).

Tobias, then 19,  while studying, genetics under Professor Raymond Dart - famous for his discovery of what became known as the Taung Skull in 1924 - and Professor Joe Gillman, he “fell under the spell” of palaeontology.  Dart's theory, now accepted, initially shocked scientists across the globe. The skull is now seen as belonging to a child of the humanoid Australopithecus Africanus genus.  This was a new species, a new link in the chain, which ends with modern humankind - Homo sapiens sapiens.

Having deviated to complete a medical BSc, he was already teaching in the department by 1946. Tobias was appointed Demonstrator in Histology and Instructor in Physiology at the University of Witwatersrand, in 1945.  He received his Bachelor of Science degrees in Histology and Physiology in 1946-1947, graduated in Medicine (MB. Ch.B.) in 1950. In 1951, he was appointed to a full time lectureship in the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School. He received his PhD in 1953 for his acclaimed thesis entitled ‘Chromosomes, Sex-Cells and Evolution in the Gerbil’.

He established the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa (ISMA) in 1956 to advance the study of human ancestry and evolution, heredity and genetic composition and bodily structure in Africa. In 1959, he succeeded Raymond Dart, the outgoing professor to become the Professor and Head of the Department of Anatomy, the first South African born person in the Chair of any medical faculty in the country, a position he held until 1993.

He went on to obtain doctorates in medicine, genetics and palaeo-anthropology. Tobias was the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was awarded a Rockerfellow Travelling Fellowship to tour the United States of America. He also did further studies at Cambridge University in England, which eventually awarded him an Honorary Doctorate. In 1967, he was awarded a DSc for his published work on hominid evolution.

Tobias was appointed Honorary Professor of Palaeo-anthropology at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research in 1977 and Honorary Professor in Zoology in 1981. Following the death of Steve Biko in 1977, Tobias and other scholars wrote a formal complaint to the South African Medical Council about the treatment of Biko by the police. They also took the Council to the Supreme Court regarding on the matter.

Upon his retirement, he was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus, and was head of the research department at the Sterkfontein Caves. He regularly attended his office at Wits Medical School until his illness in early  2012.

One of his most famous palaeo-anthropological finds was “Little Foot” - four 4.17-million year-old foot bones unearthed at Sterkfontein by Dr Ron Clarke.  Later more of the skeleton was unearthed making Little Foot, humanity’s oldest, most complete skeleton of a direct ancestor, Tobias explained, in 2003 when a new dating technique showed the bones to be considerably older than the first estimate of 3.3 million years.

In 2002, he had his own, popular, TV series, “Tobias' Bodies”.  The series, presented and narrated by Tobias, consisted of six stand-alone episodes exploring different themes around genetics, anatomy and primatology.

Tobias always had a great love for the palaentological digs at the Sterkfontein Caves outside Krugersdorp on Gauteng's West Rand where he led a team of researchers.  He participated in almost all the other major digs in southern Africa since 1945 and discovered some 25 archaeological sites in then “Bechuanaland Protectorate” (now Botswana), while on the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition.

Tobias contributed significantly to the submission of “The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Environs” which was inscribed in 1999 and today is known as The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. He also successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage site.

He was instrumental in the process to have the remains of Saartjie Bartmann, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, returned to South Africa. He led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government. Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa in 2002.

Phillip Tobias published an estimated 1000 journal articles and co authored 33 books. Selected works include Chromosomes, Sex-Cells and Evolution in the Gerbil which was his first book and edited version of his thesis, which was published in London by Percy Lund-Humphries and Company in 1956 under that title. A two volume work in the Olduvai Gorge Series was published in 1991. The autobiography that records the first 40 years of his life called Into the Past was published in 2006. Until recently, he was working on a second book to record the rest of his life to date.

Tobias was nominated for a Nobel Prize three times. He was the recipient of many awards and honours, including honorary degrees from the universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, Unisa, Durban-Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph, and the Witwatersrand. During his life palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias changed humans' understanding of our ancient ancestry. Tobias was known for being a friendly, outgoing man, eloquent and able to explain his science in a way that is understandable.

He died in Johannesburg at Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre on 7 June 2012, after a three-month illness. 


References:
• SAPA (2012), Professor Phillip Tobias dies from IOL News, [online]  Available at www.iol.co.za  [Accessed on 7 June 2012]
• Paton A. (2012).South Africa’s beloved Professor Philip Tobias dies from Gauteng Tourism [online] Available at www.gauteng.net [Accessed on 7 June 2012]
• Klaff, J, (2012), Phillip Tobias obituary: Renowned palaeoanthropologist at the heart of the Sterkfontein excavations in South Africa, from The Guardian, 14 June, [online] Available at www.guardian.co.uk [Accessed 20 June 2012] 

Last updated : 01-Mar-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Jun-2012