The passing of Professor Phillip V. Tobias
By: Wits Communications, 7 June 2012

It is with great sadness that the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg confirms the passing of Professor Phillip Vallentine Tobias (born on 14 October 1925). A stalwart of the University and a world-renowned scientist, Professor Tobias passed away today, Thursday, 7 June 2012 in Johannesburg after a long illness. We extend our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of Professor Tobias, and those who knew him well.

Tobias has  had a long and illustrious career of over 50 years at Wits and has inspired generations of medical and science students. He was internationally renowned for his scholarship and dedication to a better understanding of the origin, behaviour and survival of humanity; for his many major scholarly contributions to palaeoanthropology, anatomy, human biology, cultural anthropology, the evolution of the brain, cytogenetics and the history and philosophy of science.

Tobias was renowned for his sustained campaign against racism and for upholding and fighting for human rights and freedoms. In recent years he publicly protested against xenophobia, government’s initial HIV/AIDS policies and government’s delay in granting the Dalai Lama a visa to enter South Africa.

His achievements have also been recognised internationally and Phillip has been the recipient of many awards and honours, including honorary degrees from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, Unisa, Durban Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph, as well as from Wits.

In his time at Wits, Phillip served as Professor of Anatomy and Human Biology and served as head of these departments until 1990. From 1980 to 1982 he served as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Honorary Professor of Palaeoanthropology and Professor of Zoology. In 1994 he was made Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Human Biology and Honorary Professorial Research Fellow in Anatomical Sciences at Wits, positions he still holds today. He has been visiting professor at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Florence, Cornell and Vienna, amongst others. As a world authority in palaeoanthropology he has authored over 1130 publications.

His name is synonymous with the initiation of the research and excavation of the Sterkfontein caves where over a third of all known early hominid fossils has been found. The site is now a World Heritage Site. He is associated at various levels with “Mrs Ples” (Australopithecus africanus), “Little Foot” (the most complete Australopithecus specimen ever found), the “Taung child” (Australopithecus africanus) and “Dear Boy” (Australopithicus boisei) – come of the most famous of hominids in the world.

His published works include biographies of anthropologists as well as aspects of the philosophy and history of science. The list of his achievements and awards is exhaustive and includes being nominated for a Nobel Prize on three occasions.

Paleoanthropologist and Wits University professor Phillip Tobias received a lifetime achievement award from the National Research Foundation in September 2010 and is also a recipient of a National Order from the Presidency.



Leading South African palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias died on Thursday morning.

During his life palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias changed humans' understanding of our ancient ancestry.

Born between the two world wars - on October 14, 1925 - he died in Johannesburg at Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre on Thursday morning after a three-month illness, said Gauteng Tourism Authority spokesman Anthony Paton.

Tobias, who was nominated for a Nobel prize three times, decided to study medicine at 15 after his sister, Val, who was 21, died of diabetes.

He asked the family doctor why his sister and his mother's mother had the disease, but he and his mother did not. The reply was that there was no one in South Africa suitably qualified in genetics to answer the question.

Tobias enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand's Medical School in 1944, later branching into genetics.

“I decided I'd be the first one (to answer his boyhood question),... and I was,” he told Sapa in an interview in 1996.

He later wrote an acclaimed thesis on genetics.

Anger at his sister's death might have begun Tobias' study of humans, but love for humankind brought him to spend a lifetime studying its history.

One of his most famous palaeo-anthropological finds was “Little Foot” -four 4.17-million year-old foot bones unearthed at Sterkfontein by Dr Ron Clarke.

Later more of the skeleton was unearthed making Little Foot our oldest, most complete skeleton of a direct ancestor, Tobias explained in 2003 when a new dating technique showed the bones to be considerably older than the first estimate of 3.3 million years.

While Tobias, then 19, was studying genetics under Professor Raymond Dart - famous for his discovery of what became known as the Taung Skull in 1924 - and Professor Joe Gillman, he “fell under the spell” of palaeontology.

Dart's theory, now accepted, initially shocked scientists across the globe. The skull is now seen as belonging to a child of the hominid Australopithecus africanus.

This was a new species, a new link in the chain which ends with modern humankind - Homo sapiens sapiens.

Tobias, who was the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at the University of the Witwatersrand, was always known for being a friendly, outgoing man, eloquent and able to explain his science to anyone.

In 2002 he had his own, popular, TV series, “Tobias' Bodies”.

The series, presented and narrated by Tobias, consisted of six stand-alone episodes exploring different themes around genetics, anatomy and primatology.

Tobias always had a great love for the palaentological digs at the Sterkfontein Caves outside Krugersdorp on Gauteng's West Rand where he led a team of researchers.

He participated in almost all the other major digs in southern Africa since 1945 and discovered some 25 archaeological sites in then “Bechuanaland Protectorate”, now Botswana, while on the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition.

The professor also successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage Site.

Tobias was instrumental in the process to have the remains of Saartjie Bartmann returned to South Africa. He led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government.

The remains of the Khoi woman, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, finally returned home in May 2002.

Tobias was appointed Demonstrator in Histology and Instructor in Physiology at the University of Witwatersrand, in 1945.

He received his Bachelor of Science degrees in Histology and Physiology in 1946-1947, graduated in Medicine (MB, BCh) in 1950, and received his PhD in 1953.

In 1967 he was awarded a DSc for his published work on hominid evolution.

He established the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa (ISMA) in 1956 to advance the study of human ancestry and evolution, heredity and genetic composition and bodily structure in Africa.

In 1959 he became Professor and Head of the Department of Anatomy, a position he held until 1993, after which he became Professor Emeritus and head of the research department at the Sterkfontein Caves.

Tobias was appointed Honorary Professor of Palaeo-anthropology at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research in 1977 and Honorary Professor in Zoology in 1981.

He was the recipient of many awards and honours, including honorary degrees from the universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, Unisa, Durban-Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph, and the Witwatersrand. - Sapa

He matriculated from Durban High School, after which he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand for a BSc in Histology and Physiology, graduating in 1946. He then completed his honours in 1947 with a first class pass in Histology, his MBBCh in 1950 and his PhD in 1953. In 1955, he was a Post-doctoral Fellow in Physical Anthropology in the Duckworth Laboratory, Cambridge.

He continued with post-doctoral studies in 1956 in the Departments of Anatomy, Human Genetics and Anthropology at Chicago University and in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan University. Back in South Africa, he obtained his DSc at his alma mater, Wits, in 1967.

He will be sorely missed at Wits, but his passing will leave a deep wound in the country and the scientific community around the world.