Top South African paleoanthropologist, Professor Philip Tobias, described by Nelson Mandela as an “iconic scientist”, has died in Johannesburg after a bout with illness at age 86.
AFP said he was also an anti-Apartheid activist and had been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize for his scientific work. Tobias, who was Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of the Witwatersrand, authored more than 1,130 publications, was an expert in human genetics and presented a popular television documentary about evolution in South Africa.
Although Tobias never personally discovered a new human ancestor, he did help define the work of others and most famously named the hominid homo habilis or “Handy Man”. He was also involved in identifying fossil remains of Australopithecus now better known as Mrs Ples, Little Foot, the Taung child and Dear Boy. He was, among other achievements, the only person to hold three professorships at the same time.
South African President Jacob Zuma, IOL reports, paid tribute to the great scientist. Zuma said Tobias had demystified complex science, adding:
“We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being. Our country remains eternally proud of his work.”
He was an associate of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, as well as holding honorary degrees from the universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, the University of South Africa (UNISA), Durban Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph and his own alma mater, Wits.
The Mercury quoted the Director of the Institute for Human Evolution, Professor Francis Thackeray, who said:
“We have lost a great and special representative of our species, Homo sapiens.”