Tobias: giant of science turns 80

14 October 2005

Professor Phillip V Tobias, South Africa’s most famous scientist, renowned worldwide for his work on genetics, fossils and early human origins and author of more than 1 000 books, academic articles and treatises, turned 80 on Friday.

Tobias, who retired as head of the Wits University anatomy department in 1990 but remains an honorary research fellow, is best known for his work on the evolutionary links between primates and early humans. He is the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at Wits University – anatomy, human biology and palaeoanthropology.

He’s the most highly honoured South African scientist, having received 16 honorary degrees and countless awards. His academic achievements, listed on the Wits website, are a little scary:

OMSG. OSC, BSc Hons, MBBCh, PhD, DSc, (Witwatersrand), HonDSc (Natal; West Ont; Alberta; Cape Town; Guelph; UNISA; Witwatersrand; Mus Nat d’Hist Naturelle, Paris; Durban-Westville; Stellenbosch; Turin; Barcelona; Charles U, Prague), Hon ScD (Cantab; Penn), Certif of Honor (Calif-Berkeley), FRS (Lond), MASSAf, FRCP, For Assoc NAS, Hon FRAI, Hon FRSSAf, Premio Balzan, For Mem. Amer Phil Soc.

The man is clearly brilliant. But that’s not how he puts it.

“I must have inherited a tolerably well-developed nervous system,” he said in a recent interview with the Sunday Independent.

“But what one makes with a well-developed nervous system depends on one’s environment and education. My schooling and my self-education as an inveterate reader from an early age must have used the nervous system my genes gave me to good effect.

“The genes lay down a range of possibilities, but your environment, your teaching, your education select among those possibilities.”

The DNA and the message
Tobias was able to read at the age of three. While childless, in the course of his career he has supervised more than 10 000 students, who he refers to as “his children”.

“I think they’ve carried on my message no less unerringly than if they had some of my DNA,” he told Business Day.

The path of Tobias’s life was set by the diabetes-related death of his sister Valerie when he was 16. He could not understand why the disease had passed from his maternal grandmother to his sister, leaving his mother untouched.

These and other details of his life are revealed in Into the Past: A Memoir, the first part of Tobias’s autobiography, published last week.

When he found that no local scientist could answer the riddle of his sister’s death, Tobias decided to become South Africa’s first geneticist.

He attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he ended up obtaining five degrees, including a medical degree, a PhD in genetics and a DSc in palaeoanthropology.

He served Wits for over 50 years, from part-time teacher in the anatomy department to lecturer and senior lecturer under the legendary Professor Raymond Dart, finally succeeding Dart to become professor of anatomy and head of the anatomy department for 32 years.

Tobias was drawn into the study of fossils by Mary and Louis Leakey, who asked him to write a description of a hominid skull they discovered in Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. In 1964, with Louis Leakey and John Napier, he was co-namer of Homo habilis, a new species and the first hominid with a larger brain capacity than Australopithecus africanus.

He also led the team of scientists that discovered the three-million-year-old hominid Little Foot, and helped scientists understand the evolution of human speech.

Apartheid, racism and Biko
Tobias also conducted extensive research on the genes of living people, including the Khoisan and miners, and was an outspoken critic of apartheid, eloquently arguing that there was no scientific basis for racial classification.

Tobias was active in initiating the first anti-apartheid campaign in the universities of South Africa as early as 1949, as president of the nonracial National Union of South African Students.

He kept up the fight against apartheid in academe and in society at large, and played a prominent part in the struggle to keep the universities of South Africa open to all races.

He was one of a small group of medical experts who lodged a formal complaint with the SA Medical and Dental Council on the handling of Steve Biko by certain doctors, whose treatment of the anti-apartheid activist was a critical factor in his death in police custody. Tobias and his colleagues eventually took the Medical Council to the Supreme Court – and won the case.

“There were times of great difficulty, when government-supporting scientists and institutions sent veiled warnings to me not to be so outspoken if I wanted to go on getting research grants,” Tobias told Business Day in a recent interview.

“But I felt it was my duty to speak out on the meaning of race, and did so on every possible occasion.”

In 1990, Tobias retired from his duties as the head of the anatomy department but retained his position as director of the Sterkfontein Research Unit and supervisor of doctoral students.

“I love people,” he told the Sunday Independent. “I love my students. I love the world around me of humanity – black, white, male, female. They are among my passions.

“People are fun. I love dinner parties and braaivleis and camping out with my students at Sterkfontein and Makapansgat and sing-songs around the camp fire. Part of me is quite an ordinary sort of chap. I love quite simple things.”

A brilliant career
Professor Phillip Tobias was born in Durban, Natal on 14 October 1925.

He is Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School. He holds the positions of Honorary Professor of Palaeoanthropology, Honorary Professorial Research Associate and Director of the Sterkfontein Research Unit. He is the Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, US.

He serves on the planning committee for the World Heritage Site at Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and the environs; the South African National Commission for Unesco; the Institute for the Study of Mankind in Africa; on the editorial boards of a number of scientific periodicals; and is a member of numerous national and international scientific academies.

Tobias has studied the chromosomes of mammals; the living peoples of southern Africa, especially the Kalahari San (Bushmen), miners on the Witwatersrand gold mines from southern African countries, and the Tonga people of Zambia; the anatomy, growth, physique and secular trends in southern African peoples; the meaning of race in human beings and the implications of racism; and the history and philosophy of anatomy, anthropology and biology.

He is a world authority on human evolution and the analysis of early hominid fossils. His work on the evolution of the human brain and the origins of spoken language is internationally recognised. He has examined and described hominid fossils from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Libya, Israel, Spain and other parts of Europe, Indonesia and China.

His work at Sterkfontein is especially important. He first worked there as an undergraduate student in 1945 and has run an uninterrupted major excavation there since 1966, being responsible for the recovery of some 600 hominid fossils. These have made Sterkfontein the world’s richest single deposit for ancient hominid remains.

He has excavated also at Makapansgat, Cave of Hearths, Rainbow Cave, Mwulu’s Cave, Kromdraai, Gladysvale, Taung, and Rose Cottage Cave in Ladybrand, Free State. He has been a consultant to the World Heritage Centre of Unesco on the Peking Man site of Zhoukoudian near Beijing, China.

He was entrusted by Louis and Mary Leakey with the study of all the fossil hominids they recovered from Tanzania and Kenya, a working partnership that continued for some 20 years and resulted in three large volumes and numerous articles by Tobias.

Under his direction, the Wits Anatomy Department became a world centre for research and teaching on fossil hominids and human evolution. It attracted research students from the US, Canada, Mexico, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, China and southern Africa.

Tobias has published over 1 000 works, including about 40 books and monographs and over 90 chapters in other books.

Tobias was a recipient of the Balzan International Prize, the first time it was awarded for accomplishments in physical anthropology; the LSB Leakey Prize; the Charles Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award, the only South African to receive this award since its inception; and the Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations.

He is the first South African living and working in South Africa to be honoured with a Fellowship of London’s Royal Society in the last 40 years, and remains the only one with this prestigious honour. He is a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, the only holder in South Africa of this highest American honour. He has been awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal, the Wood Jones Medal, the Ales Hrdlicka Medal, the South Africa Medal and the Rivers Memorial Medal.

Civil honours conferred on him are the Order of Meritorious Service (gold class) of South Africa; the Order of the Southern Cross (class II) of South Africa; Commander, National Order of Merit of France; Commander of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy; and the Honorary Cross for Science and Arts (first class) of Austria.

He was the founder of the African Medical Scholarships Trust Fund and founder-chairperson of Medical Education for South African Blacks (Mesab); a member of the Advisory Committee on Khoisan Identity and Heritage, DACST; a consultant on World Heritage Sites to Gauteng and national governments; and president of the Education League of South Africa, a body set up to campaign against apartheid education.

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