STATEMENT FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG ON THE PASSING OF PROFESSOR PHILLIP V. TOBIAS
It was with great sadness that the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg learnt of 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 on Thursday, 7 June 2012 in Johannesburg after a long illness.
Tobias 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 palaeoanthropologist, 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 were also recognised internationally and 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, as well as from Wits.
In his time at Wits, Tobias 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 was visiting professor at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Florence, Cornell and Vienna, amongst others. As a world authority in palaeoanthropology he 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) – some 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.
Tobias received a lifetime achievement award from the National Research Foundation in September 2010 and was also a recipient of a National Order from the Presidency.
Tobias matriculated from Durban High School and commenced his studies at Wits with the quest to answer a question that had intrigued him since the age of 15 years: Why did his sister and his maternal grandmother had diabetes, but not him or his mother?. This genetic question was brought about by the death of his sister, Val, at age 21 from diabetes.
At Wits he enrolled 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 M.B.B.Ch in 1950 and his PhD in 1953. In 1955, he was a postdoctoral Fellow in Physical Anthropology in the Duckworth Laboratory, Cambridge.
He continued with postdoctoral 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 D.Sc at his alma mater, Wits, in 1967.
He will be sorely missed at Wits, but his passing will also leave a deep wound in the country and the scientific community around the world.