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A MEDICAL PRACTITIONER WHO BECAME A PALAEONTOLOGIST

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A MEDICAL PRACTITIONER WHO BECAME A PALAEONTOLOGIST

By: Lazarus Kgasi, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

 

In the history of South African science, Robert Broom ranks among the most flamboyant and controversial individuals. The tall, eccentric doctor, who was born in Scotland, is most known for finding a fossilized skull of a young ape-man, known as Mrs Ples at Sterkfontein in 1947. Despite being a brilliant evolutionist, Broom was a deeply religious man. He believed that spirits guided him to his discoveries.

 

Robert Broom holding Mrs Ples’ skull at the front of the then Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History).

 

Robert Broom was born in Scotland in 1866 into a poor and religious Plymouth Brethren family. He had little formal education and developed an interest in science while working as an unpaid lab assistant in the University of Glasgow’s chemistry department. He enrolled as a medical student and obtained an honours degree in midwifery in 1889. He travelled widely prior to landing in South Africa in 1898, when he worked as a doctor to finance his actual passion for paleontology. He was fortunate to have established a close relationship with General Jan Smuts, the country’s then prime minister. Given the number of enemies Robert Broom created over the course of his long career, the relationship was proved to be quite valuable. Robert Broom was appreciated by General Smuts, who said of him: “Long years ago I knew him as a medical practitioner in a small South African dorp where medicine kept the family pot boiling, but his heart dwelt far away among the reptiles of the Mesozoic age…” (Broom & Schepers, 1946:3).  Broom was hired as a professor of geology and zoology at Victoria College in Stellenbosch in 1903. Over the course of the following seven years, he used a complimentary rail pass he was able to secure from the South African Museum in Cape Town. He visited every known fossil site in South Africa and made a number of new discoveries. Broom spent a lot of his free time in the Karoo investigating, and from the fossils he discovered there, he built a basic case for how mammals descended from reptiles. The SA Railways cancelled his free pass in 1910 after the Minister of Railways, JN Sauer, declared that the study and collection of fossils were of no relevance to the nation. When he gave a lecture tour in New York in 1913, it was partially the attitude of the authorities that drove him to sell to the American Museum of Natural History a number of fossils he had borrowed from the South African Museum in Cape Town, which angered his scientific colleagues.

 

After continuing his studies in medicine in Great Britain, Broom moved back to South Africa in 1916. This was the most depressing time in his life since he felt isolated from the scientific community. In 1920, he served as mayor of Douglas, a small town on the outskirts of the Karoo in the Northern Cape. Here, he also practiced as a medical doctor. He was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa during that year, which slightly lifted his spirits.

 

After learning of the discovery of Boskop Man (on a farm near the village of Boskop in the former Transvaal), the first human fossil skull discovered in South Africa, Broom started to shift his attention towards early hominids. In 1918, he published an article on it under the name Homo capensis.

 

The young John Robinson (a distinguished South African hominin palaeontologist) and Robert Broom at Sterkfontein Cave (Gauteng Province).

 

Broom’s interest in palaeontology overpowered his interest in anthropology. When T. Swiglaar discovered the Broken Hill skull (now known as Kabwe) in Zambia in 1921, Broom was certain that humanity’s roots must have been in Africa. As a result, he was ecstatic when the Taung child was uncovered.

His charisma helped him recover from the blow of being disliked by the scientific community, and the immense amount of effort he put into his work won him the respect of the then prime minister, Jan Smuts, who saw to it that a palaeontology position was created for him at the Transvaal Museum (now the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) in Pretoria in1934.

 

Broom focused his hunt for hominins in the Sterkfontein valley in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Because dynamite was used to retrieve fossils, his work generated controversy. However, his strategy did succeed in making him renowned around the world by discovering Mrs Ples and Kromdraai Ape-man. In 1951, Robert Broom passed away after working tirelessly to finish his monograph on the Swartkrans hominins. On April 6, 1951, he finished the last corrections, writing in his journal, “Now that’s finished…and so am I.” That evening, he passed away.

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