Robert Broom

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Robert Broom

Synopsis:

Physician and palaeontologist, discoverer of “Mrs Ples” or the most complete Australopithecus africanus skull.

First name: 
Robert
Last name: 
Broom
Date of birth: 
30 November 1866
Location of birth: 
Paisley, Scotland
Date of death: 
1951
Location of death: 
South Africa

Professor Robert Broom was born on 30 November 1866 Paisley, Scotland to a poor family. He was educated as a doctor and received his degree from the University of Glasgow in 1895. In 1893 he married Mary Baird Baillie.

Broom specialized 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 palaeontology 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 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 Bloom and John Robinson. They discovered the ‘most complete’ australopithecine skull, which Bloom named Paranthropus robustus, nickname ‘Mrs Ples’, also known by the catalogue number STS 5.

Another of Broom's major finds was STS 14, a partial skeleton which consisted of much of a pelvis, femur, and vertebral column and proved convincingly that australopithecines had walked upright.

Shortly before his death Broom published his monograph, 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.

Among hundreds of articles contributed by him to scientific journals, some of the most important include:

  • "Fossil Reptiles of South Africa" in Science in South Africa (1905)
  • "Reptiles of Karroo Formation" in Geology of Cape Colony (1909)
  • "Development and Morphology of the Marsupial Shoulder Girdle" in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1899)
  • "Comparison of Permian Reptiles of North America with Those of South Africa" in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (1910)
  • "Structure of Skull in Cynodont Reptiles" in Proceedings of the ZoÁ¶logical Society (1911).

References:
• Biographies: Robert Broom [online] Available at: www.talkorigins.org [Accessed 24 November 2009]
• Mrs Ples from Wikipedia [online] Available at: en.wikipedia.org [Accessed 24 November 2009]
• Robert Broom and Mrs Ples [online] Available at: archaeology.about.com [Accessed 24 November 2009]
• 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: www.sahistory.org.za [accessed November 2009]

Last updated : 06-Sep-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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