/ 7 June 2012

South Africa’s eminent prof of fossils dies

Professor Philip Tobias.
Professor Philip Tobias.

PHILLIP TOBIAS (1925-2012)

Tobias was usually to be seen near some half-unearthed bones in Sterkfontein, outside Johannesburg. Born in 1925, he started working at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946, where he spent the rest of his career. There, he received doctorates in medicine, genetics and palaeoanthropology. In 1959 he took over as head of anatomy at the Wits medical school. When he retired 30 years later, he was awarded the title of professor emeritus.

His other lifelong project started in 1966 when he started excavating at Sterkfontein. During his 50 years spent walking around the rolling hills of this site, he supervised the discovery of more than 1000 hominin fossils belonging to humans and their ancestors. He also drove the process of making the Cradle of Humankind a world heritage site.    

Professor Bruce Rubidge, director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at Wits university, said it was a sad day for the field. “He made a huge contribution to the discipline from the very start when he put in descriptions of the earlier hominids.”

Although Tobias was aware of his illness and was growing older, Rubidge said he was still busy towards the end of his life and was trying to get work done. The students he had taught continue his work around the world, he added.
Tobias left no children, but saw his students as his legacy. “I have taught over 10000 students; all of those are, in some small way, like my children,” he once said. “It is not a genetic legacy that I leave but 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 that almost every one of them has given something valuable to me, and I remember them as my own family.”

He was a prolific publisher and was working on a second autobiography at the time of his death. – Sipho Kings