8 June 2012
One of South Africa’s leading scientists – and regarded by many as the grandfather of the country’s palaeosciences – Professor Phillip Tobias died in Johannesburg on Thursday after a long illness.
Led by President Jacob Zuma, condolences have poured in for the family of the late professor.
“We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being,” Zuma said. “Our country remains eternally proud of his work. On behalf of government and the people of South Africa, we extend our deepest condolences and may his soul rest in peace.”
South Africa’s foremost palaeo-anthropologist and a full professor since the 1950’s, Tobias successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage site. This is only one of a long list of accomplishments.
He was renowned for demystifying complex science to everyday life and language, as his programmes on television bore testimony.
Tobias also had the rare distinction of holding three professorships simultaneously at the University of the Witwatersrand, leading and producing ground- breaking research into the origins of the human form as we know it, through the “study of the bone”.
He was instrumental in taking forward the research started by Professor Raymond Dart, who was famous for his discovery of what became known as the Taung Skull in 1924.
The skull is now seen as belonging to a child of the humanoid Australopithecus Africanus genus, a new species then and a new link in the chain which ends with modern humankind – Homo sapiens.
South Africa also owes a debt of gratitude to Professor Tobias for his successful efforts to have the remains of Saartjie Bartmann returned to the country.
He led negotiations with France on behalf of the government. The remains of Saartjie Bartmann, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, finally returned home in May 2002.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and her Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom have also conveyed their condolences to the Tobias family.
In their message of condolence, they said the late Professor Tobias will always be revered for his profound research in palaeo-anthropology.
“The Department of Science and Technology would like to convey their sincere condolences to the family and friends of the late Prof Tobias. He will always be remembered for his immense contribution in palaeo-anthropology,” said Pandor.
The contribution to research by Professor Tobias in the fields of genetics, through anatomical studies to palaeo-anthropology is well known. It is this contribution that led the department to establishing an annual Professor Philip Tobias Lecture and Award in honour of his contribution.
The inaugural lecture was delivered by the 2002 Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine, Professor Sydney Brenner in 2004 and Professor Malekgapuru Makgoba, a molecular immunologist, delivered the last one in 2008.