Renowned South African Scholar Phillip Tobias Dies

During his life palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias changed humans' understanding of our ancient ancestry.

Born between the two world wars — on October 14, 1925 — he died in Johannesburg at Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre on Thursday morning after a three-month illness, said Gauteng Tourism Authority spokesman Anthony Paton.

Tobias, who was nominated for a Nobel prize three times, decided to study medicine at 15 after his sister, Val, who was 21, died of diabetes.

He asked the family doctor why his sister and his mother's mother had the disease, but 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.

Tobias enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand's Medical School in 1944, later branching into genetics.

"I decided I'd be the first one (to answer his boyhood question)… and I was," he told Sapa in an interview in 1996.

He later wrote an acclaimed thesis on genetics.

Anger at his sister's death may have begun Tobias' study of humans, but love for humankind brought him to spend a lifetime studying its history.

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 our 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.

While Tobias, then 19, was 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 palaentology.

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 that ends with modern humankind — Homo sapiens sapiens.

Tobias, who was the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at the University of the Witwatersrand, was always known for being a friendly, outgoing man, eloquent and able to explain his science to anyone.

In 2002 he hosted his own, popular TV series, "Tobias' Bodies".

The series, presented and narrated by Tobias, consisted of six stand-alone episodes exploring different themes about genetics, anatomy and primatology.

Tobias always had 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 "Bechuanaland Protectorate", now Botswana, while on the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition.

The professor also successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage site.

Tobias was instrumental in the process to have the remains of Saartjie Bartmann returned to South Africa. He led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government.

The remains of the Khoi woman, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, finally returned home in May 2002.

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, BCh) in 1950, and received his PhD in 1953.

In 1967 he was awarded a Doctorate in Science for his published work on hominid evolution.

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 became Professor and Head of the Department of Anatomy, a position he held until 1993, after which he became Professor Emeritus and head of the research department at the Sterkfontein Caves.

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.

In 2006 Tobias' autobiography "Into the Past", which documented his first 40 years, was published.

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who wrote the foreword to the book, said it "not only records Phillip Tobias's personal journey in life, science and education, but also the passage of our country, South Africa".

Paton said Tobias had been working on another book covering the rest of his life, but it was unclear whether he had finished it.

Tobias, who never married or had children, said he regarded his students, numbering in the region of 10,000 during his career, as being "in some way" his children.

"It is not a genetic legacy that I leave, but rather a cultural one, orally transmitted through education, the value of which cannot be overemphasised.

"I like to believe that I have given something valuable to every one of them, and I can tell you quite honestly that almost every one of them has given something very valuable to me, and I remember them as my own family," he said.

Tobias 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, who was nominated for a Nobel prize three times, decided to study medicine at 15 after his sister, Val, who was 21, died of diabetes.