Durban Living Legend – Philip Tobias

Professor Phillip Vallentine Tobias

Professor Phillip Vallentine Tobias was born in Durban in 1925. He went to St Andrew School and later moved to Durban High School in 1939 where he matriculating in 1942. At the age of 15 even before he finished his schooling, he decided to study medicine after his sister, Val, who was 21, died of diabetes.

Tobias enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Medical School in 1944, later branching into genetics. Tobias was also active in anti-apartheid politics, and was the chair of the National Union of South African Students  (NUSAS)

Tobias was appointed Demonstrator in Histology and Instructor in Physiology at the University of Witwatersrand, in 1945.  He received his Bachelor of Science degrees in Histology and Physiology in 1946-1947, graduated in Medicine (MB. Ch.B.) in 1950. In 1951, he was appointed to a full time lectureship in the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School. He received his PhD in 1953 for his acclaimed thesis entitled ‘Chromosomes, Sex-Cells and Evolution in the Gerbil’.

He established the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa (ISMA) in 1956 to advance the study of human ancestry and evolution, heredity and genetic composition and bodily structure in Africa. In 1959, he succeeded Raymond Dart, the outgoing professor to become the Professor and Head of the Department of Anatomy, the first South African born person in the Chair of any medical faculty in the country, a position he held until 1993.

He was a South African paleoanthropologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He was best known for his pioneering work at South Africa’s famous hominid fossil sites, and was one of the world’s leading authorities on the evolution of humankind.

He was awarded a Rockerfellow Travelling Fellowship to tour the United States of America. He also did further studies at Cambridge University in England, which eventually awarded him an Honorary Doctorate. In 1967, he was awarded a DSc for his published work on hominid evolution.

Tobias was appointed Honorary Professor of Palaeo-anthropology at the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research in 1977 and Honorary Professor in Zoology in 1981.

Upon his retirement, he was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus, and was head of the research department at the Sterkfontein Caves. He regularly attended his office at Wits Medical School until his illness in early 2012.

Tobias had excavated at the Sterkfontein caves and worked at almost all other major sites in Southern Africa since 1945. He also opened 25 archaeological sites in Botswana while on the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition conducting a biological survey of the Tonga People of Zimbabwe. He was one of the anthropologists instrumental in unmasking the Piltdown fraud. He passed away in June 2012.

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