S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Broom, Dr Robert (palaeontology, palaeo-anthropology)

Born: 30 November 1866, Paisley, Scotland, United Kingdom.
Died: 6 April 1951, Pretoria, South Africa.

Robert Broom's interest in science began early in his life when as a child, like so many Victorian children, he started collecting floral and faunal specimens. He was educated at Hutcheson Grammar School, Glasgow, and obtained his medical degree at Glasgow University in 1888. In the early 1890s his adventurous spirit brought him twice to America and later to Australia, where he practised medicine and conducted scientific research. In 1897 he arrived in South Africa where, with only brief interruptions, he remained until the end of his life. Just as he had in Australia, he worked as a medical practitioner and conducted scientific research in his spare time, mostly on fossil reptiles. In 1903 he was appointed Professor of Geology and Zoology at the Victoria College (later the University of Stellenbosh). Six years later he returned to medical practice and the life of a free-lance scientist. In 1929 he retired (unsuccessfully) from his medical practice and moved to Grahamstown, trying to dedicate all his time to scientific research. In 1934 he was appointed Curator of Palaeontology at the Transvaal Museum (now the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History). He stayed with this institution until the end of his life, which coincided with the end of his scientific career as he wrote the final sentences of his last monograph virtually on his deathbed. Because of his boastful personality and strange habits, such as belief in the power of the sun, which sometimes led him to excavate naked, Broom is often described as an eccentric. This eccentricity in the form of an inclination towards heterodoxy is noticeable even in his scientific writings.

Broom's early scientific career was devoted to comparative anatomy. He was particularly interested in the organ of Jacobson (vomero-nasal organ). These early studies were followed by research in palaeontology, anthropology and palaeoanthropology. Later in life his interest in the meaning of evolution led him to philosophical speculations.

In the field of palaeontology Broom is best known for his descriptions of numerous fossil reptiles found in the Karoo region of South Africa. These finds helped him devise his theory of the evolution of mammals from mammal-like reptiles. This theory, elaborated in his 1932 book Mammal-like reptiles of southern Africa had an enormous impact on palaeontology and evolutionary theory.

Broom also developed an interest in the native populations of southern Africa and published several influential papers on this subject, for example, "A contribution to the craniology of the yellow-skinned races of South Africa" (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, 1923) and "Bushmen, Koranas and Hottentots" (Annals of the Transvaal Museum, 1941). While his research, based on the typological race concept, was acceptable at the time when these papers were published, his ways of acquiring human skeletal material, which included grave-digging and boiling of human corpses, was almost as unacceptable in his time as it is today.

Broom was one of the first scientists (in 1925) to support Raymond A. Dart's* interpretation of the newly-discovered Australopithecus africanus as a possible ancestor of later hominids, including modern humans. However, his more intensive involvement in palaeoanthropology only started after his move to the Transvaal Museum. In 1936 he recovered australopithecine remains from the site of Sterkfontein. This represented the first of his several major palaeoanthropological discoveries, made at Sterkfontein, Kromdraai and Swartkrans until his last days. His finds included the 1947 discovery of the hominid fossil colloquially known as "Mrs Ples", one of the symbols of South African palaeoanthropology. During the Second World War, when excavations were suspended for economic reasons, Broom worked on a monograph on South African australopithecines with the young neuroanatomist G. W. H. Schepers*. Published in 1946 under the title South African Ape-men - the Australopithecinae, this work initiated a paradigmatical shift in the understanding of human evolution. Two other classical monographs on South African australopithecines soon followed: Sterkfontein Ape-man, Plesianthropus (1950, co-authored by J. T. Robinson and G. W. H, Schepers), and Swartkrans Ape-man, Paranthropus crassidens (1952, with J. T. Robinson).

Although a materialist, atheist and convinced evolutionist as a student, Broom changed his outlook (partly as a result of being influenced by spiritualism) and endeavoured to reconcile religion and science. He firmly believed in evolution, but not in Darwinism, claiming that spiritual forces lay behind the evolutionary process. These views were clearly expressed in his books The coming of man: Was it accident or design (1933) and Finding the missing link (1950), as well as in several technical papers (e.g., "Evolution: is there intelligence behind it?", South African Journal of Science, 1933, Vol. 29, pp. 1-19) and popular articles (e.g., "The evolution of a scientist", Outspan, 5 April 1946).

Broom's achievements were acknowledged by the leading scientific associations. Among other honours he was: Croonian Lecturer of the Royal Society of London (1913), elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1920) and awarded its Royal Medal (1928), elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1947), recipient of the Wollaston Medal awarded by the Geological Society of London, and awarded honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degrees by the University of Cape Town (1929) and the University of the Witwatersrand (1933).

Robert Broom was one of the most significant and most interesting figures in the history of South African science. He has usually been portrayed in an old-fashioned, hagiographic manner as a great hero of science. However, many of his ideas are quite foreign to modern science while some, deeply imbedded in the cultural norms of his time, are today considered outrageous. His scientific career must therefore be understood in its entirety as it exemplifies how South African science was conducted in the first half of the twentieth century.

Broom was married to Mary B. Baillie and they had three children.

List of sources:
Findlay, G. H. Dr. Robert Broom, F.R.S.: Palaeontologist and physician, 1866-1951. Cape Town: Balkema, 1972.

Petr, V. British metaphysics as reflected in Robert Broom's evolutionary theory. Bulletin of the Czech Geological Survey, 2000, Vol. 75(1), pp. 73-85.

Roberts, A. Historical account of Dr. Robert Broom and his labours in the interest of science. In: A. L. Du Toit (ed.) Robert Broom commemorative volume (pp. 5-15). Cape Town: Royal Society of South Africa, 1948.

Strkalj, G. Robert Broom on the vomero-nasal organ (the organ of Jacobson). Journal of Anatomy, 1996, Vol. 188, p. 498.

Strkalj, G. Inventing races: Robert Broom's research on the Khoisan. Annals of the Transvaal Museum, 2000, Vol. 37, pp. 113-124.

Strkalj, G. Robert Broom's theory of evolution. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 2003, Vol. 58(1), pp. 35-39.

Strkalj, G., Adams, J. and Wang, Q. Robert Broom's first reconstruction of the adult Australopithecus. South African Journal of Science, 2005, Vol. 101, pp. 217-218.

Tobias, P. V. Conversion in palaeo-anthropology: the role of Robert Broom, Sterkfontein and other factors in australopithecine acceptance. In: P. V. Tobias, M. A. Raath, J. Moggi-Cecchi and G. A. Doyle (eds.), Humanity from African naissance to coming millennia (pp. 13-31). Firenze and Johannesburg: Firenze University Press and Witwatersrand University Press, 2001.

University of the Witwatersrand. Honorary Graduates. http://www.wits.ac.za/alumni/alumnirecognition/3600/honorary_degrees.html

Watson, D. M. S. Robert Broom, 1866-1951. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1948, Vol. 8, pp. 37-80.

Wells, L. H. One hundred years: Robert Broom, 30 November 1866 - 6 April 1951. South African Journal of Science, 1967, Vol. 63, pp. 357-366.

Compiled by: G. Strkalj