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Professor Phillip Tobias

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On childhood and passion for life

Professor Phillip TobiasSixty-eight years ago, 17-year-old Phillip Vallentine Tobias arrived at Wits Medical School with wonder in his eyes and excitement in his heart. He became a world-famous palaeoanthropologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of the
Witwatersrand — and a world authority on the evolution of humankind.

Being surrounded by young people who are researching, coming up with new ideas and sharing their work with me is an enormously rejuvenating experience.

Africa still has so much to teach us. Although the area around Sterkfontein has now been named the Cradle of Humankind and there is the Cradle of Mankind in northern Tanzania, in fact Africa is the cradle of mankind. The oldest hominids are
from Ethiopia, Chad and Kenya by a few more million years than ours. But it still doesn’t prove where it all started, so we
still have to seek out answers.

Always go after what you want. I had a difficult childhood. My parents divorced and I went from Durban to Bloemfontein and
back to Durban for high school. My beloved sister Valerie was diagnosed with diabetes at 16 and died at the age of 21. All
these hardships and difficulties I saw as challenges. You either rise above them or go under and take to drugs or alcohol.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing. While at school, I would visit the Durban Natural History Museum. My interest in genetics was sparked from a display on human eye colour and mealies of different colours. All this shaped what I was to become.
Now I’m 85, I haven’t travelled for the past three years, but if something special came up I would make a plan.

When asked about my marital status, I answer with ease. I am married — to my work, the medical school and the anatomy department at Wits. I also have a large family of around 10 000 children — my students! Many people have asked why I didn’t take up a position overseas. My father was in Joburg, and I c o u l d n’t abandon him. My research work at Wits was always a major pull. As I became more steeped in it, it became less feasible to live anywhere else. Although I had repeated absences, such as a year at Cambridge in 1955 and six months in the US in 1956, I knew I’d always return to South Africa. My heart was here.

Even when things appear to be at their worst, always look for the positive. I felt very strongly about apartheid and fought
strongly against it, starting the first anti-apartheid movement at Wits. I always felt it would change; it was inevitable. I don’t feel any particular grievance or grumpiness about the state of things. I’m an eternal optimist and have every hope that things are going to come right.

For 40 years students would confide in me and ask what I thought about their leaving South Africa to work overseas. These are decisions only they could make. You have to weigh up the arguments for staying and the arguments for going. T h e re ’s always been a brain drain in the medical world. It is a universal phenomenon. If you are good, you go to centres of excellence where there is money for research.

A great teacher makes a difference. It’s not that children today aren’t interested in science; interest doesn’t just grow out of the ground. Like a seed germinating it has to be nurtured and watered. Teachers are the crucial element.

Religion and science can live happily together. This is the eternal question that arises particularly when a new discovery
is made which sheds new light on the origins of man. People want enlightenment. It is worthwhile to seek reconciliation
between science and religion or between evolution and theology because it’s not religion that says “no, you must not
do that” — it’s the theologians who are interpreting and spelling out the religion.

I’ve had a number of close friendships with ministers of different faiths, especially Catholics, who have an open attitude towards evolution.

Retirement is the kiss of death. I still come to the office most days but as you can see there’s no computer on my desk. I
officially retired from my chair of anatomy after 30 years at the end of 1990, then immediately took up another three years — and then retired in the sense that they no longer paid me.

You must not retire unless y o u’ve got books to write, travels to travel, music to perform or listen to, sports to take part in or to watch. — Marion Scher

 

 

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Marion Scher is a member of the Southern African Freelancers Assocation

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