Phillip Tobias’s father owned a toyshop. Imagine the treasures unearthed by the wide-eyed son. He’d go down to the store and ride the scooters and tricycles for sale. Sadly, the dream didn’t last. The toyshop flourished in the early years, but the emergence of wholesale bazaars drove his father to bankruptcy. This is not a tragic story.
Something must have clicked in the young boy’s mind, as he would go on to turn his office into a paleontological toyshop of artifacts, trinkets, skeletal remains and books – volumes and volumes of books. It became a glorious trove of science, research and curatorship, categorising the extent of human existence; all that is missing is the man himself.
Tobias, a Professor Emeritus of anatomy, human biology and paleoanthropology, was one of South Africa’s finest scientists. He received three nominations for the Nobel Prize and was the recipient of a dozen honourary doctorates. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London and was awarded South Africa’s Order for Meritorious Service – you need a lie-down after articulating the extensive list of merits. The final point is that on the 7th of June 2012 we lost an icon.
Famously known for his pioneering work at Africa’s hominid fossil sites, Tobias joined Louis Leakey and John Napier as the co-namers of Homo habilis, the first hominid with a larger brain capacity than Australopithecus Africanus. The discovery was as big as the words used to describe it. Tobias initiated a research programme in 1966, and has since been associated with recovering over 600 hominid fossils, making Sterkfontein the world’s richest single deposit for ancient hominid remains.
Tobias’s eyes beamed when prompted to voice one of his favourite quips. “When people ask, ‘what has Africa ever given to the world?’ The answer is, humanity.” His studies of fossils unearthed from the diggings at Sterkfontein and Makapansgat and Olduvai permitted the man to soapbox the fact that human beings and human culture first appeared in Africa.
Tobias was one of the scientists instrumental in persuading the world to acknowledge, and celebrate Africa as the Cradle of Humankind. He stood as a proud son of his continent. This sentiment reached beyond academia to a steadfast social conscience.
He was an outspoken critic of apartheid and campaigned actively for its abolition. From as early as 1949 Tobias was the kingpin in initiating the first anti-apartheid campaign within the universities of South Africa. “Some chose to fight the system from abroad,” he said. “But I chose to fight from within.”
Tobias acted as president of the nonracial National Union of South African Students and was tireless in the struggle to keep universities open to all. When Steve Biko died in police custody, it was Tobias who stepped forward to join a select group of medical experts who lodged a formal complaint with the South African Medical and Dental Council. They accused the doctors who treated Biko of a degree of malpractice leading to his death. Tobias and his colleagues took the Medical Council to the Supreme Court – and won.
“There were many gloomy days, almost suicidal days that one had to contend with leading up to this time of change,” he said of the period. “I am pleased to have lived long enough to experience a change.”
His was a gentle courage rooted in a deep love for humanity, and an absolute belief in equality and freedom. His welcoming manner and enthusiasm for conversation made him a natural teacher, with a legacy that still lives on in the countless students he inspired to further study.
Tobias’s articulate tone was never far from an endearing cackle. He possessed a wit as sharp as his eye for spotting fossils poking from the earth and passed his knowledge in this manner to 10 000 students over the course of his career.
His remarkable ability to communicate scientific deductions in plain language, with subtle humour seldom far behind, extended into the field. On discovering a fossil specimen deflated by the pressure of earth, Tobias turned to Louis Leaky and said, “Nobody has ever been that flat, unless it be Twiggy. Now you remember how flat Twiggy is in certain directions…” Leakey published the find by that name.
The passing of Tobias’s older sister ignited the stellar career spanning over five decades. Valerie was diagnosed with diabetes at age 16; the illness took her life at 21. The young Tobias wrestled with the genetic logic of the disease, which had skipped a generation, sparing their mother. When he found that no local scientist could answer the riddle of his sister’s death, Tobias vowed to find the answer. “I was determined to become the first human geneticist in this country, which in fact I did.”
He made the point in an off-handed manner – easy for a man who excelled at every academic endeavour. It could have gone another way. We could have been celebrating the illustrious life of Rabbi Tobias – he was drawn to the faith and at one point considered the calling.
At another time he toyed with being a journalist, a novelist perhaps. His family, demoralised by an incessant lack of abundance, suggested he look to more gainful employment. It is the world’s good fortune that Tobias ended up a scientist, but he ended up having his way as a writer.
He penned and published 1 200 works. “An excessive amount,” he chuckled, “Rather making a pig of myself, you might say. It’s quite outrageous for anyone to claim a publication list of 1200 items, of which about 20 are books.
“But one’s legacy will live on, even if my croaky voice, brandishing of arms and body language are not there to convey the message and smash home the points.
“Even if that is not there, the papers one has written, the books themselves are a persistence of one’s legacy. They will speak for me after I’m gone.” Tobias lifted a glass of water, a smile beaming across his face. “Cheers,” he said.