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The article outlines the career of the renowned South African scientist Phillip Vallentine Tobias. While he made substantial contributions to a number of scientific disciplines, Tobias spent most of his career teaching anatomy at his alma mater, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and saw himself primarily as an anatomist. The first part of this article presents Tobias' major contributions to science and demonstrates that his profound knowledge of anatomy was the basis of many of his groundbreaking research accomplishments. The second part of the article focuses on Tobias' career in anatomy and his significant contribution to anatomy teaching and administration, particularly in establishing and organizing the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa. The article also demonstrates how Tobias' academic career was constrained by the oppressive system of apartheid South Africa and how social engagement was an integral part of his intellectual activities. Clin. Anat. 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Top of page
- A LIFE IN SCIENCE
- THE ANATOMIST
Professor Phillip Vallentine Tobias (Fig. 1) is one of South Africa's most renowned scientists. He has often been described as a ‘Renaissance man’ because of his many interests and contributions to a wide variety of scientific disciplines. In addition, he was well versed in the arts and humanities and was politically and socially engaged from his student years. Indeed, it would appear that only a few contemporary scientists would qualify better for the title.
It is this versatility that makes it difficult to describe and analyze Tobias, his scientific output and academic profile. Above all, one wonders which field of research or sphere of interest best defines him as an academic and scientist—what discipline did he regard as his ‘home’ and from which radiated all his many accomplishments? Tobias, however, provided the answer to this question himself. In a lecture, in which he pondered upon his career, this famous scientist noted, “although my life has been spent in the halls of academe where I became known as cytogeneticist, physical and palaeo-anthropologist and jack-of-all trades, let me now confess that I am basically an anatomist!” (Tobias,2004).
In the present article, a contribution to the history of contemporary science (cf., Doel and Söderqvist,2006; American Association of Anatomists,2012), we will first outline Tobias' scientific biography and then, in more detail, focus on his career as an anatomist. In the field of human anatomy sensu stricto, Tobias produced comparatively little research. Most of his contributions represent anatomy as it is applied to other related disciplines, most prominently various branches of physical anthropology. Indeed, profound knowledge of anatomy enabled Tobias to make some of the key breakthroughs in the domains of human evolution, development, and diversity. It would appear that Tobias' most important contributions in human anatomy are to be found in teaching, administration, and scientific organization, and these will be the main focus of this article.
A LIFE IN SCIENCE
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- A LIFE IN SCIENCE
- THE ANATOMIST
Phillip Tobias was born in Durban on 14 October 1925 (for more detailed biographical accounts see Tobias,1991a, 2004, 2005; Štrkalj et al.,2005; Tobias et al.,2008). In Durban (with a three-year spell in Bloemfontein) he completed his primary and secondary education.
At the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits), Tobias studied medicine, but like many talented students at the time, took a break halfway through to obtain a science degree. He had a special interest, sparked by personal tragedy, in medical genetics. As a boy, he witnessed the death of his sister from diabetes at the age of 21. The fact that his mother (but not the maternal grandmother) had no symptoms of the disease was a mystery that no one could explain to him at the time. At Wits, Tobias obtained his MB BCh (1950), PhD (1953) and DSc (1967). Three years after it had been defended, Tobias' Ph.D. was published as his first book Chromosomes, Sex-cells and Evolution in a Mammal (1956). At Wits, Tobias was strongly influenced by his two mentors, his PhD supervisor Joseph Gillman, and even more by the then Head of the Department of Anatomy (now School of Anatomical Sciences), Australian born anatomist and anthropologist, Raymond Dart. It was primarily under Dart's influence that Tobias decided to ramify his scientific interests in several diverse, yet complexly interconnected disciplines (Wheelhouse and Smithford,2001; Tobias,2005; Tobias et al.,2008; Štrkalj and Tobias,2008), including palaeoanthropology, neuroanatomy as well as human variation, growth, and development.
Tobias' student days were busy, both scientifically and in terms of his political and social engagements. As an undergraduate, Tobias led student expeditions to Makapansgat, the valley that would later became famous for its wealth in paleoanthropological and archaeological remains. These early student expeditions would lead to systematic excavations of the site that resulted in numerous important discoveries related to southern African history and prehistory. During his student years, Tobias was also the president of the non-racial National Union of South African Students, which strongly opposed segregated education. Tobias' opposition to South Africa's apartheid regime continued throughout his life, the most famous being his involvement in the “Biko doctors” affair and the fight against apartheid in education.
Tobias was appointed as a Lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at Wits in 1951. In 1959, he became a Professor and succeeded Raymond Dart as the Head of Department. In 1993 Tobias retired and was appointed Professor Emeritus. In addition, Tobias was a member of the Senate and Council of the University and held the prestigious position of Dean of the Medical Faculty from 1980 to 1982.
Although Tobias' PhD and his early career were in the field of genetics (he established the first human genetics counseling service in South Africa), his research, postgraduate mentorship, and teaching would soon spread into other fields such as human growth and variation, skeletal biology, paleoanthropology, evolutionary theory as well as philosophy and the history of science (Table 1). To all these disciplines, Tobias made significant contributions, which brought him many honors including the Huxley Memorial Medal, the Balzan International Prize, Membership of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and the American Philosophical Society, and the Fellowship of the Royal Society, London.
Table 1. Phillip Tobias: Some scientific career highlights
|1950||MB BCh (Wits)|
|1951||Appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy (Wits)|
|1956||Carried out the first proper census of the San, which put the population at 50,000; Published his first book, a classical monograph Chromosomes, Sex-cells and Evolution in a Mammal.|
|1959||Appointed Head of the Department of Anatomy (Wits)|
|1959||Established the first Somatotype Laboratory in southern Africa|
|1961||Published The Meaning of Race in which he deconstructed racial typology and dispersed myths of racial superiority|
|1963/4||Together with Maurice Arnold published the anatomy textbook Man's Anatomy (an abbreviated, new edition entitled Practical Anatomy is still used in many universities); with Arnold introduced new methods of anatomy teaching including the Living Anatomy|
|1964||Initiated a series of Anatomy Colloquia which would lead to the establishment of the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA)|
|1964||Described a new hominin species, Homo habilis, with Louis Leakey and John Napier|
|1966||Initiated the Wits University excavations at Sterkfontein|
|1967:||Published a monograph on Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei, based on Mary Leakey's fossil discovery in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania|
|1978||Published, as an editor and contributor, a multidisciplinary monograph The Bushmen|
|1979||Established Palaeoanthropology Research Unit (later Sterkfontein Research Unit and now part of Wits' Institute for Human Evolution)|
|1985||Research on the South African populations challenged the “secular trend” that height in humans increased generationally and introduced the concept of the “negative secular trend”|
|1991||Published a monograph on Homo habilis|
|1993||Retired as the Head of Department and was appointed Professor Emeritus|
|1998||Together with its discoverer Ron Clarke, announced the “Little Foot,” the most complete australopithecine skeleton (found in Sterkfontein)|
Tobias' research on South African living populations began in 1952 when he joined the French Panhard Capricorn Expedition to study the San and other ethnic groups of the Kalahari Desert. In 1956, he founded the Kalahari Research Committee, which organized the annual multidisciplinary scientific expeditions to the Kalahari until 1971. This research was crowned in 1978 by the publication of a monograph entitled The Bushmen that Tobias edited and to which he contributed. His research on growth and development of the Southern African populations soon included other groups such as the Tonga of Zambia. Tobias also strongly argued that the growth and development of some of the underprivileged populations of South Africa was impaired by the adverse socio-economic conditions and introduced the concept of the “negative secular trend” (Tobias,1985).
Although Tobias' early views on human variation were based on racial typology, he was soon to accept more modern approaches (Morris,2005). In 1961, he published a short but insightful book entitled The Meaning of Race (Tobias,1961) in which he masterfully dispersed myths of racial superiority. This book and its second enlarged edition published 11 years later served as main reference texts in many institutions in South Africa and abroad (Tobias,1972a).
In 1959, Tobias established the first Somatotype Laboratory in southern Africa and 13 years later published the first account of the somatotypes of African populations from this part of the continent (Tobias,1972b).
Three years earlier, in 1956, Tobias' superb review of the morphology of the controversial Kanam jaw led Louis and Mary Leakey to invite him to describe their find of Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei. That was the beginning of a long-lasting and scientifically productive friendship with the Leakey family, and Tobias' engagement in the interpretation of East African hominin fossils. In 1964 together with Louis Leakey and John Napier, Tobias identified a new hominin species Homo habilis (Leakey et al.,1964). Tobias later completed two classical monographs on the East African (Olduvai Gorge) material—on Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei (Tobias,1967) and Homo habilis (Tobias,1991b). Both these monographs are based on a superb knowledge of anatomy and constitute paradigmatic examples of insightful and meticulous research.
In South Africa, Tobias was in charge of excavations at well-known hominin sites such as Sterkfontein (from 1966), Taung (early 1980s), Makapansgat, and Gladysvale. As a result of these digs, more than 600 hominin specimens have been recovered and catalogued. The field and laboratory studies under Tobias' leadership allowed for the development of the Wits' School of Anatomical Sciences into a major world centre of paleoanthropological research and teaching. Most of this work has been completed through the Palaeoanthropology Research Unit (later Sterkfontein Research Unit and now part of Wits' Institute for Human Evolution), which Tobias established at Wits in 1979. Tobias also contributed many theoretical insights to palaeoanthropology focusing on different subjects such as systematics, brain evolution, and evolutionary theory.
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When Tobias was first appointed as a staff member in the Department of Anatomy at Wits, his main task was to teach anatomy to medical students and those studying allied medical disciplines (this part of the article is based on Tobias (1991a, 2004, 2005) and Štrkalj et al. (2005) as well as the series of interviews that the authors, together with Jane Dugard and Qian Wang, carried out with Tobias; edited transcripts of these interviews were published in Tobias et al. (2008). Indeed, Tobias' predecessor Raymond Dart had built a small, provincial Anatomy Department at Wits into a world class teaching and research institution providing instruction to medical, dental, nursing, pharmacy, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy students as well as several groups of science students. Teaching anatomy remained Tobias' main task for almost half a century (Fig. 2).
In order to improve the teaching of anatomy, Tobias and his colleagues from the department compiled lecture notes outlining their own system of anatomy dissections. These notes would later grow into a three volume dissection manual authored by Tobias and a fellow Wits anatomist/surgeon Maurice Arnold. The manual entitled Man's Anatomy was first published in 1963–1964. The three volumes covered the anatomy of (1) thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and perineum, (2) head and neck, including the central nervous system, and (3) back and limbs. They were illustrated by numerous, black and white drawings produced by local artists Phyllis and Deirdre Samson.
The name of the book came, after considerable deliberations, from the famous South African writer Sarah Gertrude Millin. In the process, several possible titles were discussed, including Millin's flamboyant proposal Once 'twas a Man. Tobias later reminisced the events when he told Millin “… well you know Sarah, we're dealing here with hard-headed and often very materialistic medical students, I can't imagine them saying 'Take out your Once 'twas a Man … or Once 'twas a Man page 73'” (Tobias et al.,2008).
Tobias and Arnold (1963–1964) emphasized that the manual had “a twofold function” as it was “a guide to the dissection of the human body” and it provided “a systematic account of human anatomy.” The text combines regional and systematic approaches in an ingenious way. While the chapters focus on particular regions, each of the chapters presents the structures in these regions according to the systems they belong. This approach enables student to learn detailed anatomy of different regions while, at the same time, adopting a holistic approach to the body systems and their integration.
Following the philosophy of their mentor, Raymond Dart, Tobias and Arnold instructed the dissectors to induce minimum “damage” to the cadaver. This way, the cadaver and various structures could be preserved for a longer period of time, to be used for further instruction and revisions. Furthermore, the skeleton of the cadaver could be preserved and used for research and teaching purposes. Indeed, largely as a result of this approach, Wits has one of the most valuable collections of human skeletons (Dayal et al.,2009) in the world.
Man's Anatomy went into three more editions in 1967, 1977, and 1988 and several re-prints. In preparing the fourth edition of the manual a new author, John (Jack) Allan, was introduced who was another prominent anatomist and surgeon from Wits. Subsequently, and following the global changes in anatomy education and significant reduction of anatomy hours in medical programs, the three volume edition was condensed into a single volume book entitled Practical Anatomy (Kieser and Allan, 1999). Indeed, in the review of the first edition of the book (Joseph,1966), while it was noted that “the text is accurate” and “the drawings easy to learn and very useful in teaching,” the large amount of detail was called into question. The two original authors, however, did not take part in producing the new book and the revised manual was authored by Allan and Jules Kieser (also from Wits).
The manual has become a classic in South Africa—a local version of Gray's Anatomy. (Richardson,2008). It provided a meticulous and detailed presentation of anatomical structures and superb guidance through the complex labyrinths of the dissection of human cadavers. Furthermore, it proved especially valuable to students who did not speak English as their first language as it was written in simple, yet clear language. This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the manual's extensive use in South African universities in which there is a high number of students who have a mother tongue other than English.
In his department, Tobias was not only continuously trying to improve the teaching and learning of anatomy but also to add a variety of novel elements to the educational process. Thus, he strived to incorporate aspects of the humanities into anatomy and medical education—a process that has gained momentum in recent years (Vannatta and Crow,2007; Canby and Bush,2010). Tobias, for instance, initiated a dedication service in his department, which was devoted to the body donors. The service, which has now became a tradition at Wits, is carried out at the beginning and the end of the academic year, with all staff and students involved in dissection attending. As South Africa is a multicultural society, the service is led by a different cleric each year, with the denomination also changing each year. The ceremony aims at initiating student reflection about the philosophical and ethical aspects of studying human bodies through dissection and paying respect to the donors.
Philip Tobias was also known as a meticulous academic administrator. Apart from numerous administrative duties at his alma mater, he played a key role in establishing an anatomical society in southern Africa. The idea of initiating such a society was born in 1955 during his stay at Cambridge University as a Nuffield Dominion Senior Travelling Fellow in physical anthropology. During this visit he attended a meeting of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, where he presented his first paper to that society. In his reflections of this experience, he wrote in his journal in 1955 “I foresee the day when such a society should be brought into existence in South Africa” (personal communication, interview with the authors, 2005). His thoughts were that the departments eligible for membership to such a society would be the anatomy departments at medical schools of which, at that stage, there were only four (Universities of Cape Town, Wits, Pretoria, and Stellenbosch).
In 1964 Tobias initiated a series of Anatomy Colloquia incorporating the anatomy departments in what was then the Transvaal Province of the Republic of South Africa. These included Pretoria, led by Professor Tobie Muller, Onderstepoort, a veterinary anatomy department with a strong emerging research profile, led by Professor H.P.A. de Boom and Wits. Funds to arrange a wider meeting were scarce. Academically, however, the Colloquia were very successful and a number of research papers were presented. In his opening address to the Colloquia, Tobias confidently stated that it would not be long before an anatomical society in South Africa became a reality.
The news of the Colloquia soon reached the Universities of Cape Town and Natal and at their request, colleagues from Natal and Cape Town were invited as visitors to the Transvaal Anatomy Colloquia.
At the fifth meeting of the Anatomy Colloquia in Durban, Tobias proposed the establishment of ASSA—an Anatomical Society of South Africa (that later changed to Southern Africa). This proposal was unanimously accepted. Professors Tobias, de Boom and John Allan (Tobias' colleague from Wits and future collaborator on Man's Anatomy) were requested to draft a constitution for the Society, while de Boom took on the task of drawing an appropriate logo. The Constitution was approved at the Inaugural Conference held in Durban in 1968. The Anatomical Society of Southern Africa thus came into being with Tobias as the first president, an office he held from many years.
The colloquia and the subsequent meetings of the society were an enormous boost to fostering research in anatomy departments in South Africa. In the early years, more than half of the papers presented at these meetings were from Wits, but this soon started to change as Tobias encouraged other departments to participate in research. Ever mindful of the fact that there was an Anatomical Society in West Africa and he himself being well connected with anatomy departments in East Africa (Nairobi, Kampala in Uganda, and Dar Es Salaam), Tobias encouraged colleagues from medical schools in Angola, Luanda, Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique), Harare in Zimbabwe and others, to attend the Society meetings.
During his office as President of the Society, Tobias set up the Society's annual eponymous lecture, the Thompson-Stibbe Lecture, in honor of South Africa's first two professors of anatomy: Edward Phillip Stibbe from Wits and Robert Black Thompson from the University of Cape Town. Tobias, who delivered the first of these lectures, devoted his discourse to the contributions of Thompson and Stibbe in heading the first Anatomy departments with the rights to dissect the human body anywhere in Africa, south of Egypt (Tobias,1990a, b).
All this happened during the time of the international academic boycott of South Africa and although colleagues from neighboring countries wanted to attend the congresses, they could not accept the Society's invitation. The boycott and its impact played a prominent role in Tobias' career. He was torn between leaving the country in protest and staying and trying to fight the system of apartheid from within. Notes from Tobias' personal diary show the emotional and intellectual turmoil he was going through: “Is it selfish to regard it simply as a matter of conscience? Would I be salving my own conscience and letting the University down? Would I be betraying the very principles I hold most dear?” (Tobias,1991a). He decided to take the more difficult road—stay in South Africa under the regime of apartheid and try to change the system. That meant, however, that he would often be misunderstood, unappreciated, and even ostracized by colleagues from overseas.
The academic boycott of South Africa delayed the growth of the Anatomical Society. Members of the Society were not permitted to publish in some journals and were even refused attendance at certain conferences. Tobias recalled one such event while he was still president of the Society in which South African anatomists were invited to attend an international anatomical conference in Leningrad (personal communication, interview with the authors, 2005). About 18 members led by Tobias accepted the invitation and duly applied for travel visas to Leningrad. Very shortly before the meeting, the South African delegation was informed that they were not to receive visas. Tobias, who was in Amsterdam at the time, went by train to the Consulate of the Soviet Union at The Hague to submit an appeal on behalf of the South African delegation which he led. The decision was reiterated. Tobias then produced his British passport and was granted a visa. In protest against the boycott, loyal to his colleagues (most of whom shared the same anti-apartheid sentiment), he refused to attend the conference.
Tobias reflected with a sense of pride (very much like that of a father watching over his child) that with the dawn of the democratic era in South Africa (the first democratic elections were held in 1994), the Society had attracted anatomists from other countries (personal communication, interview with the authors, 2005).
In more recent years, Tobias strongly supported the Society's bid to host a conference of the International Symposium of Morphological Sciences (ISMS). At an AGM of the ISMS, Tobias addressed the meeting saying: “…it is inconceivable in this day and age that this society (ISMS) has never met in Africa… We do have anatomists in Africa!” (personal communication, interview with the authors, 2005). In 2001, ASSA successfully hosted the meeting of the ISMS and in 2009, the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists, coinciding with ASSA's 40th anniversary.
Four decades from its inception, Tobias was still keen that the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa should aspire to publish its own journal. He envisaged that this would be a tremendous boost to anatomy in South Africa and maybe an impetus for anatomy to play an integral role in medical curricula in South Africa. He was optimistic that the Society would continue to actively promote the subject that remained close to his heart!