Prof Philip Tobias (14 October 1925 – 7 June 2012), The extinction of a truly rare genius

As a student I frequently spent weekends wandering in the Hekpoort area of the Magaliesberg mountains. On one such rambling, accompanied by life-long friend Chris McBride (of White Lions fame) we came across the parietal (top crown) section of a human skull lying in the sand of a dry river bed. Wrapping it carefully in tissue paper I took it home with me and without a second thought to making an appointment soon found myself knocking on the door of Wits professor of anatomy Professor Philip Tobias – already then (in the 60’s) a world authority on human bones. As luck would have it Prof Tobias was in and I was soon chatting away over a cup of tea with this remarkable human being.

As it turned out the section of skull was probably that of a young (modern) man and was not of great anthropological importance, but the time that I spent with Prof Tobias made me a fan of both himself and of his work.

My memories of Prof Tobias came flooding back to me when I came across his obituary in a past copy of the New Age newspaper. Simple titled “The extinction of a truly rare genius” the reporter captured in these simple words the essence of this great human being. One paragraph in particular that caught my eye read “Prof Philip Tobias… was not only a ground-breaking scientist on a colossal scale but a wonderful human being.”

How many people (men in particular I have to say!) hide behind their position in life ? As Shakespeare said it : “Clothed in a little brief authority” they pretend to the world they are the lord and master of all. How warming to come across a man like Philip Tobias, recognised throughout the world as a colossus in his field but, as important , known for his humility, warmth and engaging personality.

Although Tobias never married he would say that the 10 000 students that he taught in his lifetime were like his own children, so that although his legacy was not genetic “but orally transmitted through education” . He was a great believer in education saying that “its value cannot ever be overemphasised.” A true teacher if ever there was one.

They say that ‘extinction is forever’ and if applied in the narrow sense to Prof PhilipTobias then it would be so – but the truth is that the legacy that he left the world will endure for ever – not only because of the unique contributions that he made to palaeoanthropology, but because of the way in which he encouraged people (scientists and lay-people like me alike) to be part of the ongoing quests of life.

Typical of Tobias, when asked how it felt to have founded, in 1966, the world’s longest standing continuous palaeo-anthropological dig at Sterkfontein, he said : “I did nothing on my own, I was always supported by a team of fellow scientists, Alun Hughes, Ron Clarke, and many others…”

So, along with all of the others whose lives he touched, however briefly, I thank Philip Tobias for being the man that he was – a man who gave much to the world as he pursued his life’s dream with self-belief, passion, perseverance and integrity but, as important, a man who knew how to make the most of every interactions with other people by listening with warmth, attention and empathy with everyone with whom he came into contact.