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.
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.
University of the Witwatersrand