Lives of the fellows

Phillip Vallentine Tobias

b.14 October 1925 d.7 June 2012
BSc Wits(1946) BSc hons(1947) MB BCh(1950) PhD(1953) DSc(1967) Hon DSc Natal(1980) Hon DSc Western Ontario(1986) Hon DSc Alberta(1987) Hon ScD Cantab(1988) Hon DSc Cape Town(1988) Hon DSc Guelph(1990) Hon DSc South Africa(1990) FRCP(1992) Hon DSc Durban-Westville(1993) Hon DSc Pennsylvania(1994) Hon DSc Wits(1994) FRS(1996)

Philip Tobias was a renowned South African palaeoanthropologist and campaigner against the apartheid regime. He was born in Durban, in the then Union of South Africa, the second child of Joseph Newman Tobias, an estate agent, and Fanny Rosendorff, a housewife. After matriculation with distinction at Durban High School, he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School (Wits). He was closely associated with Wits for the majority of his working career, continuing well beyond the age of academic retirement, researching, writing, teaching and lecturing and administration: a career extending over 60 years. Having pursued science degrees in histology and physiology, he decided to complete his medical studies, graduating MB BCh in 1950, but at an early stage decided to pursue a scientific career rather than become a clinical doctor.

He was awarded a PhD for the study of chromosomes, sex-cells and evolution in the gerbil. He subsequently widened his horizon beyond medical genetics to palaeoanthropology, which was to dominate the rest of his scientific career, and was awarded a DSc in paleoanthropology. He was inspired by Raymond Dart, professor of anatomy at Wits, who had initiated the study of early hominids in South Africa, and was famous for his discovery in 1924 of the Taung skull, the first hominid specimen unearthed in Africa, later known as Australopithecus africanus. Tobias’ career pathway in anatomy led to his appointment in 1959, in succession to Dart, as professor of anatomy and head of the department of anatomy and human biology, an appointment he held until 1993. Under his direction the Wits anatomy department became a world centre for research and teaching on fossil hominids and human evolution, attracting postgraduate students from many parts of the world. He served as dean of the faculty of medicine from 1980 to 1982, and was a member of the university council for 14 years. He was innovative in the teaching of anatomy and, with Maurice Arnold, co-authored a key dissection manual written in concise language (Man’s anatomy, Johannesburg, University of Witwatersrand Press, 1967).

For the bulk of his working life he led excavations for hominid fossil finds at Sterkfontein, now an UNESCO World Heritage site known as ‘the cradle of humankind’. In 1959 Tobias became closely involved with the archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who were working at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Subsequent data from fossils and artefacts clearly established the continent of Africa as the location of early human beings and their ancestors.

In 1952 he began research on living populations in South Africa, specifically the San and other ethnic groups in the Kalahari desert, and later edited The Bushman, San hunters and herders of Southern Africa (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1978). He showed that the San could be regarded not as ‘degenerate remnants’, but as a population adapted to survival under the harsh conditions of the Kalahari.

Phillip Tobias was deeply and passionately involved in the affairs of South Africa outside academia. He was president of the National Union of South African Students, a non-racial organisation, between 1948 and 1951. In the extremely harsh years of racial discrimination in South Africa, Phillip Tobias followed the ethical code of the Hippocratic Oath. Together with like-minded, conscientious colleagues, Tobias took up the case of Steve Biko, a young medical student and anti-apartheid activist, who died in custody having been tortured and denied proper medical care by the South African security police and government medical officers. Tobias and five others went to the South African Supreme Court and ensured that the doctors involved were struck off the medical roll.

His political activity provoked visits from the Special Branch. He had drawn up contingency plans to flee the country in the expectation that he would be able to take up an offer from an American university; the plan proved unnecessary.

Following the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, Tobias successfully negotiated on behalf of the new South African government to have the remains of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman sent back to South Africa from France. Baartman, a Khoi woman paraded naked in bars and freak shows in Europe as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ in the 19th Century, had died in Paris at the age of 26. In 2002 her remains were finally repatriated. After Tobias’ death, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa issued a statement praising him for his help in the repatriation.

Tobias sometimes found himself shunned by scientists from other countries and barred from international conferences in condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid policy, which he, in his forthright way, had always opposed. In the citation in 1998, when Tobias was given an honorary fellowship of the College of Medicine of South Africa, he was described as ‘a shining example of the view exquisitely expressed by Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty – that is all/ Ye know on earth and all Ye need to know”’.

Tobias received numerous honorary degrees and medals, and gained life membership of prestigious scientific societies in recognition of his medical and scientific achievements. He gave more than 20 named lectures in various institutions in southern Africa and throughout the world. In 1992 he received the Order for Meritorious Service (Gold Class) and in 1995 the Order of the Southern Cross Class II from the president of South Africa. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1996, and was nominated on three occasions for the Nobel prize.

In 2004, Nobel laureate for physiology and medicine, Sydney Brenner, previously his contemporary at Witwatersrand University, delivered the first lecture named for Phillip Tobias. At Wits a recently acquired building has been named the Phillip V Tobias Health Sciences Building in his honour, and the PV Tobias Bursary Fund has been set up by the faculty of health sciences and health sciences student body.

Tobias loved cricket, books, theatre, music and travel. He shared with a few close friends, as noted in one of his letters, ‘a common interest in poetry, philosophy, chocolate cake and interfaith tea parties’. He never married. In his own words: ‘I am often asked why I didn’t marry or have children. I have 10,000 children. Those are medics, dentists, therapists, pharmacists who have been through here – those are my children.’ His students were his family.

He was asthmatic. He soldiered on through many infective exacerbations. In 2004 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At a dinner party, a long-lost friend gave him a bear hug, which caused the fracture of a rib, a pathological fracture which necessitated radiation therapy. He continued his working career until his final days. In his own words: ‘retirement without things to do would be the kiss of death’. He died of metastatic prostate cancer.

Krishna Somers

[The Telegraph 10 June 2012; The New York Times 11 June 2012; The Guardian 14 June 2012; The Independent 29 June 2012; – accessed 22 March 2013; South African History Online – accessed 22 March 2013]

(Volume XII, page web)

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