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Phillip Tobias

21 ICONS: Phillip Tobias

Phillip Tobias


The late Phillip Tobias, a Professor Emeritus of anatomy, human biology and paleoanthropology, and one of South Africa’s finest scientists, is honoured in this edition of 21 ICONS: South Africa. The project by photographer/filmmaker Adrian Steirn features great South Africans who have made impactful contributions to our country and its people.


Throughout his life, Tobias received three nominations for the Nobel Prize and was the recipient of a dozen honourary doctorates. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London and was awarded South Africa’s Order for Meritorious Service.


Famously known for his pioneering work at Africa’s hominid fossil sites, Tobias joined Louis Leakey and John Napier as the co-namers of Homo habilis, the first hominid with a larger brain capacity than Australopithecus Africanus. The discovery was as big as the words used to describe it. Tobias initiated a research programme in 1966, and has since been associated with recovering over 600 hominid fossils, making Sterkfontein the world’s richest single deposit for ancient hominid remains.


His studies of fossils unearthed from the diggings at Sterkfontein and Makapansgat and Olduvai validated the fact that human beings and human culture first appeared in Africa. Tobias was one of the scientists instrumental in persuading the world to acknowledge, and celebrate, Africa as the Cradle of Humankind.


He penned and published 1 200 works.


During apartheid, Tobias campaigned actively for its abolition. From as early as 1949 Tobias was the kingpin in initiating the first anti-apartheid campaign within the universities of South Africa. He acted as president of the nonracial National Union of South African Students and was tireless in the struggle to keep universities open to all. When Steve Biko died in police custody, it was Tobias who stepped forward to join a select group of medical experts who lodged a formal complaint with the South African Medical and Dental Council. They accused the doctors who treated Biko of a degree of malpractice leading to his death. Tobias and his colleagues took the Medical Council to the Supreme Court – and won.


In this portrait by Steirn, Tobias holds up a hurricane lamp and walking stick, recapturing the spirit of adventure that informed his entire life.


Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here.


21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.




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