He was the “Prof” who never forgot a face, the bone man who helped us understand our origins and the teacher who inspired a generation of medical students.
On Thursday, Professor Phillip Tobias died after a long illness, ending a career that spanned 60 years at the University of the Witwatersrand.
He was one of the founding fathers of palaeo-anthropology, but to many of his colleagues and peers, he was far more than that. There was Tobias the activist, who campaigned against racism and apartheid.
In later years he protested against xenophobia, and even the government’s delay in granting the Dalai Lama a visa to enter SA. And his academic interests went further than palaeo-anthropology: he delved into cultural anthropology and cytogenics, and turned detective when he offered his theory of who committed the famed Piltdown hoax, where bone fragments were presented as fossilised remains.
Tobias’s contributions to humanity and science have been recognised internationally, and he was nominated three times for a Nobel prize.
But it was in the field of anatomy where he left a lasting impression. Medical students remembered the small professor with the beaked nose who had this uncanny ability to remember names. Later they learnt how he did it.
“We had to line up for a group photograph at the beginning of the year, with our name tags. He would look at that picture and memorise our names. Then the first time you met him, he would say: ‘How nice to meet you, Mr Johnson’,” recalled a former student, Dr David Johnson.
Years later his students were amazed when he greeted them by name.
“He just had this phenomenal memory,” said his colleague, Beverley Cramer, professor of anatomy in the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits. There was the quirky Prof Tobias who sometimes fooled around in photographs. Then there was that habit of his of suddenly stopping at the side of the road during a field trip so that he could show his students a pair of circling eagles, or look for Stone Age tools. “He was just a great human and tremendous teacher,” Johnson said.
One of his students was Professor Lee Berger, who came out to SA from the US to study under him. “His influence has been tremendous. He will be associated with Homo habilis, and the work he did at Sterkfontein with the largest assemblage of hominid fossils in the world.”
Tobias – born on October 14, 1925 in Durban – never stumbled across his own species of fossil, but he helped in describing discoveries and developing an understanding of how these ancestors fitted in on the family tree. He gave valuable insight into the likes of Mrs Ples, Little Foot, the Taung Child and Dear Boy, to name a few.
Berger said: “He always liked to say he was conceived around about the time that Raymond Dart was opening up the box that contained the Taung Child.”
Many will miss him.
Tobias’s colleague and head of the Institute for Human Evolution, Professor Francis Thackeray, said: “He will be remembered for his kindness and respect for all, whether addressing presidents, the general public or scholars. We have lost a great and special representative of our species, Homo sapiens.”
Some of the professor’s achievements:
A soft spot for The Star
Professor Phillip Tobias was a journalist’s darling. He is one of the few people I know who dictated his quotes to you and he helped you out with the grammar too. “Let’s put a comma there,” he would say, “no, no, let’s make it a semicolon.”
For a man so revered in the scientific community, Prof Tobias was very accessible to the media. Sometimes he would ask for a day just to read up on an academic paper, before commenting. Then first thing the following morning, his secretary, Heather White would phone. “Hello, old chap,” Tobias would say and he would dictate his quote.
But he did have a soft spot for The Star, for it was this paper that broke the story of the Taung child.The story appeared on page nine, he always told me. Page nine back in 1924 was the page next to the bioscope listings, and was the equivalent of the front page today.
The Prof will be missed by people like me for he made paleoanthropology – a science with big words and often confusing and tangled family trees – just that much simpler and more fascinating. - The Star