Phillip Vallentine Tobias (1925–2012)



Professor Phillip Tobias demonstrating the finer points of a gorilla mandible in what is now the School of Anatomical Sciences of the University of the Witwatersrand in the Medical School at Parktown, Johannesburg.

Phillip Tobias, who was an active scholar until his final illness, was one of the giants of the traditional anatomical sciences in the 20th century, and this was recognized by his being one of the few Honorary Members of the Anatomical Society. He studied and spent his entire career in South Africa at the Anatomy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, where his charismatic teaching is remembered fondly by generations of Wits medical students.

Tobias was born and raised in Durban, South Africa, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. He credited exhibits at the Durban Museum about genetics and archaeology for his interest in human biology and paleoanthropology. Tobias' elder sibling, his sister Valerie, was just ten years old when she was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus. Tobias claimed it was her premature death and his family history of diabetes that confirmed his interest in genetics and his determination to go to medical school.

Tobias enrolled as a medical student at Wits in 1944 at a time when, in addition to the legendary Professor, Raymond Dart, the Anatomy faculty included Lawrence Wells, who later became Professor of Anatomy at Cape Town, and Alexander (Sandy) Galloway, the Foundation Professor of Anatomy at Makerere Medical School in Kampala, Uganda. However, it was Joe Gillman, who taught histology, who was Tobias' first mentor, and it was under Gillman's guidance that Tobias began his work on chromosomes. Tobias completed an intercalated B.Sc. Honors in Histology in 1947, and he qualified M.B., B.Ch. in 1950. In the same year Dart offered him an appointment as lecturer in anatomy and in 1953 Tobias he was awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis titled Chromosomes, Sex-Cells, and Evolution in the Gerbil.

In 1951, while still pursuing his PhD in genetics, Tobias was invited to join the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition to the Kalahari Desert to collect data on the San, and thus began Tobias' involvement in human biology field research and auxology. The results of the research on the San undertaken by the Wits' Kalahari Research Committee under Tobias' chairmanship were ultimately published as impressive edited volumes. Tobias focused on modern human variation for the tenure of a Nuffield Dominions Senior Travelling Fellowship that enabled him to spend much of 1955 with Jack Trevor in the Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge. He did not immediately return to South Africa, for the award of a Rockefeller Post-Doctoral Travelling Fellowship enabled him to spend most of 1956 pursuing his study of human biology in the United States, with James Neel, Fred Thieme and James Spuhler at the University of Michigan and with Sherwood Washburn at the University of Chicago. Tobias' encyclopedic knowledge of modern human skeletal variation stood him in good stead when his research focus shifted from extant to fossil hominins.

Tobias' initial foray into paleoanthropology was the suggestion that what Louis Leakey had interpreted on the Kanam mandible as a “true chin” was instead the result of a benign pathology. Tobias presented these results at the Pan African Congress on Prehistory in Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, in 1959, that was dominated by the extraordinary fossil evidence Louis and Mary Leakey announced at the meeting. Before going to Léopoldville the Leakeys had travelled to Johannesburg to consult with Raymond Dart and to compare the newly discovered OH 5 cranium, the type specimen of Zinjanthropus boisei, with the fossil hominins from southern Africa. Perhaps urged on by Dart and their interactions with Tobias in Johannesburg, by the time the Leakeys reached Léopoldville they had decided to invite Tobias to carry out a detailed study and description of the OH 5 cranium. Their decision changed the course of his professional life for OH5 was just the first of many fossil hominins the Leakeys recovered from Olduvai Gorge in the next few years, and all of these were offered to Tobias for detailed study. It was also in 1959 that Tobias took over from Dart as Professor of Anatomy and Head of the Department of Anatomy at Wits.

The publications related to Tobias' research on the Olduvai fossil hominins make up the majority of his peer-reviewed publications. They include his superbly detailed monographic treatments of OH 5 (1967) and the Olduvai hypodigm of H. habilis (1991). Yet, while working on the hominin fossils from Olduvai, Tobias still managed to find the time to describe new hominin fossils from Ubeidiya in Israel, Chemeron in Kenya, Haua Fteah in what was then Cyrenaica, and from the Cave of Hearths at Makapansgat. Tobias had also studied the fossil hominins from Java, and this resulted in a seminal paper in collaboration with Ralph von Koenigswald (1964).

The focus of Tobias' research interest in the hominin fossil record from southern Africa was the site of Sterkfontein, in the Blauuwbank valley not far from Krugersdorp in Gauteng Province. In 1958, the ownership of the site was transferred to Wits and after a period of planning, formal excavations directed and funded by Wits began in 1966 under Tobias' direction. Alun Hughes, the Chief Technician of the Wits Anatomy Department, managed the day-to-day excavations at Sterkfontein for many years, until he passed the task on to Ron Clarke. The first of Tobias' publications of the fossils recovered from Sterkfontein concerned the Stw 53 cranium, which he and Hughes interpreted as belonging to Homo rather than Australopithecus africanus. Then came the announcement of the first evidence of the ‘Little Foot’ associated skeleton (Stw 573) in 1995 and in 1999 and 2002 influential papers with the late Charlie Lockwood on the cranial remains from Sterkfontein.

Tobias also developed an interest in paleoneurology. He devised the partial endocast method to estimate the endocranial volume of OH 7 and it was the exquisite detail on the endocasts made by Ralph Holloway that prompted Tobias' later interest in the relationship between endocranial morphology and spoken language. The same interest led to his encouragement of one of the first attempts to use computed tomography to image the endocranial cavity of hominin fossils. Tobias' James Arthur lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in 1969 was published as a book, The Brain in Hominid Evolution (1971); it deserves a wider readership than it has.

Throughout his tenure as Professor and Chair of the Department of Anatomy and then the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology, Tobias lectured to undergraduates. In the 1960s, during a period when he must have been devoting substantial time to his various Olduvai hominin-related projects, Tobias managed to find time to collaborate with a colleague, Toby Arnold, to write a three-volume anatomy text book and a little later they collaborated on a dissection manual. Tobias did much to encourage Anatomy in South Africa and in 1968 he was the driving force behind the founding of the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa, and he was its first President. For many years the Journal of Anatomy published the abstracts of the papers and posters presented at its meetings.

In 1948 Tobias was elected President of the National Union of South African Students, or NUSAS. The same year Jan Smuts' government was defeated in a national election and a Nationalist government came into power, which proceeded to institutionalize racial discrimination and racial segregation in South Africa. Tobias and his student colleagues were heavily involved in fighting to defend the right and desire of Wits University to remain open to people of all races. But his activism did not stop there, In 1977 Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist, was assaulted in prison where he died of his injuries. It was clear that doctors were likely complicit in his death, and Tobias led protests to the Medical and Dental Council to identify and censure the doctors concerned. When it refused to do this, Tobias spearheaded a group of academics who took the Medical and Dental Council to the Supreme Court, where they obtained a unanimous verdict annulling the decision of the Medical and Dental Council that there was no case to answer. This all took considerable moral and physical courage.

Phillip Tobias' was a prolific author. By my count he is the author, or co-author, of 19 books or edited volumes, 245 refereed papers in journals or edited volumes, 87 papers delivered at meetings, 508 papers in non-refereed journals, articles, addresses, forewords, introductions, lectures, letters, plenary lectures, etc., 100 biographies and obituaries, 24 book reviews, 19 substantial reports and nine film or audio initiatives. He was an incomparable wordsmith, who would always deliver a pristine manuscript, or an apt and well-crafted oration, address, or tribute. He was blessed with a prodigious memory; he read everything and forgot nothing. No one will ever have his grasp of the hominin fossil record and the cognate literature. He also had an acute sense of, and a sense for, the history of anatomy and paleoanthropology.

Although some could approach him in one or other area of his expertise, no one had Phillip Tobias' breadth, scope and depth of interest. He was a consummate anatomist who will feature in the history of both anatomy and paleoanthropology.