Professor Philip Tobias - A passion for the ancient
When and where were you born?
I was born in Durban, Natal, Union of South Africa on 14th October 1925.
When and where did you matriculate?
I matriculated from Durban High School (DHS) in 1942 with four distinctions.
Who were your favourite teachers?
Two of my DHS teachers stand out above the others.
One was Neville Nuttall, my teacher in English, who fired me with a feeling for and a love of English literature. My history teacher EV ‘Charlie” Evans inspired me with such a love of history that I started writing a school
history book in 1940, the year in which I turned 15.
Curiously enough, science and mathematics were never my strongest subjects at school, but they became a prominent part of my life when I reached university.
But within the fields of anatomy and anthropology, I have always been drawn to the history and philosophy of the subjects, based on my school grounding.
What were your favourite subjects?
I suppose at DHS it was English and History that were my two favourite subjects, but I also loved Latin and have never regretted taking Latin for matric — it has helped me not only with the Engish language, so much of which is Latin-derived, but also with the technical terms of medicine, anatomy and anthropology.
Fond memories of school?
Running and nearly winning the marathon race — my small, light body-build equipped me well for distance racing. Serving as Orderly Sergeant of the DHS Cadet Corps and drafting and typing letters on behalf of Captain N. Ingle to the Officer Commanding. Editing the class newsletter and the school magazine.
While at school, what careers interested you?
At school I thought very seriously about becoming a writer (the family dissuaded me because ‘there was no money in journalism”); also a lawyer and at one stage a rabbi. Eventually my choice fell on medicine and I was received into the Wits Medical Faculty in 1943 at age 17.
What do anatomical sciences entail?
This field embraces the intricate and beautifully patterned structure of the human body, how it comes about in the life of each one of us from conception through to adulthood. Also, how the structure of the body has developed within the lifetime of our species — that is, evolution of the features of our makeup, their development not within the individual’s lifetime, but within the long span of evolutionary time.
How did your passion for the study of fossils begin?
My exposure to the fruits of an excavation of a cave at the mouth of the Mgazana River in the south of KwaZulu-Natal, superbly presented in the Durban Museum, provided a first spark. I promptly found ‘stone tools” on the edge of our tennis court at Westville, only to find that they were broken pebbles of the Dwyka tillite, scores of millions of years old, and broken not by the hand of man but by the force of glaciers!
When I became a second year medical student, I was in the department headed by Raymond Dart and it was he who had revealed to the world the Taung skull from the Buxton Limeworks just north of Kimberley and which was the first of Africa’s great contributions to the African roots of humanity. Inevitably the atmosphere of the department rubbed off onto me. My passions for the study of fossils began in my third year as an undergraduate medical BSc student with visits to Sterkfontein, Kromdraai and Makapansgat, during all of which we located fossils.
What are your views of education today?
I remain resolutely optimistic about the value of education and about the role that written and spoken language plays and must continue to play in education. It was the development of spoken language, which I was able to show occurred about
2-million years ago, which made us over from animal-like bipeds into human beings. It was the coming of language that enabled us to embrace ever more complex concepts, cultural devices and techniques. Without spoken language and, more recently, written language, I think humans would lose a great deal of their humanity. The computer revolution is the greatest advance in the communicating of knowledge and ideas from one generation to another, but I sometimes wonder whether, if the educational system becomes too heavily dependent on it, we will be turning out inarticulate and rather illiterate learners. We must learn to embrace the marvels of the computer age without sacrificing the wonders of the book, the art of speaking, of reading and of writing.
Your vision for education in South Africa?
There are two great gaps in our educational system in South Africa: one is that, for too long, pupils at school have been denied the opportunity to study evolution, despite the fact that almost nothing in modern biology makes any sense other than seen through the spectacles of evolution.
The second great function facing
education in this country is to teach the new generations a world view which is not based on race, and attitudes which discriminate between people according to the amount of melanin in their skins! Education is the way to eliminate prejudice and racism from the minds of South Africans. It will not happen in the blink of an eye. It will need time. But we need to make a start urgently and now.