Obituary: Farewell to world-famous palaeoanthropologist

2012-06-09 16:21

Lindsay Marshall recalled an incident at Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind sometime last year.

Marshall, a curator at Maropeng, near Krugersdorp, was accompanying Professor Phillip Tobias to a conference hall.

Guests were waiting in anticipation to be addressed by the world-renowned palaeoanthropologist and academic.

But as Tobias and Marshall went up a flight of stairs they bumped into a tour group.

“Everybody wanted to shake hands with him and take pictures. They swarmed around him like (he was) a celebrity. He handled the whole thing with such grace, very polite, charming, and he talked to everybody,” said Marshall.

Tobias died on Thursday morning, aged 86, after a long illness.

Wits University, where he spent all his academic life, said that Tobias would be buried today at 10.45am at West Park Jewish Cemetery.

Tobias was nominated for the Nobel Prize for science on three occasions and he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Research Foundation in September 2010.

“South Africa also owes a debt of gratitude to Professor Tobias for his successful efforts to have the remains of Saartjie Baartman returned to South Africa,” said President Jacob Zuma.

Tobias led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government in the 90s. Baartman’s remains, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, finally returned home in May 2002.

“We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being. Our country remains eternally proud of his work,” said Zuma.

Tributes for Tobias poured in from academics, publishing houses and civil society this week.

“He was internationally renowned for his scholarship and dedication to a better understanding of the origin, behaviour and survival of humanity,” read a tribute from Wits University.

During his more than half-century career at Wits he served as professor of anatomy and human biology and was 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, positions he held until his death.

Other positions he held during an illustrious career were visiting professor at Pennsylvania and Cornell universities in the United States, as well as at universities in Florence, Italy, and Vienna, Austria, to name a few.

As a world authority in palaeoanthropology he had authored more than 1 130 publications.

Tobias was renowned for his sustained campaign against racism and for upholding and fighting for human rights and freedom.

In recent years he publicly protested against xenophobia, government’s initial HIV/Aids policies and its reluctance to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebration.

Yet despite his achievements and the respect afforded to him in the scientific world, he remained a humble man.

“He never regarded himself as a celebrity. He was a person of such high intellect. He was certainly one of the pioneers but he was always so humble, a true gentleman,” said Marshall.

His published works include biographies of anthropologists as well as aspects of the philosophy and history of science.

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