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Obituaries are often untrue. They suggest that people who had a dark side, did not. Or, they gloss over unpleasant details to promote only certain aspects of a personality.
That could never be said about Professor Phillip Tobias, who died on Thursday. Tobias was a truly great man: a man who embodied the highest aspirations of our species, Homo sapiens.
A man honoured many, many times for his outstanding work in palaeo-anthropology and regarded as one of the world’s greatest scientists, Tobias was also a highly principled man who believed in human rights. He spoke up when too many others kept quiet.
Many black former students of his noted how he went against the apartheid grain during the darkest political times. This has remained with them, along with his brilliant teaching style, his sense of humour and his uncanny memory.
In particular, Tobias will forever be associated with Homo habilis and the work he did at Sterkfontein with the largest assemblage of hominid fossils in the world.
This Durban-born man gave us a rare and clear understanding of how our ancestors fitted into a very complex family tree.
His enormous love for our history as humans filtered through into the popular imagination.
Thanks to Tobias, we came to know and deeply appreciate Mrs Ples, Little Foot, the Taung Child and Dear Boy, among others. It is unlikely these treasured individuals from a far distant past would have been known or understood without Tobias’s considerable respect for them.
Nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, the debonair professor probably didn’t need that kind of affirmation. His knowledge spread far and wide, and he was interested in everything, including the arcane world of cryogenics.
We’ll miss this wonderful man, and remember a giant, a kind father figure who knew who we were, and hoped to keep us on the good path.