Professor Robert Broom was born on 30 November 1866 in Paisley, Scotland, to a poor family. He was educated as a doctor and received his degree from the University of Glasgow in 1895. In 1893 he married Mary Baird Baillie.
Broom specialised in the field of midwifery, but he was fascinated by the origin of mammals and used his medical profession to support him while he travelled the world. After travelling to Australia, he settled in South Africa in 1897.
From 1903 to 1910, Broom worked as a professor of zoology and geology at Victoria College in Stellenbosch, but was forced to give up his position for promoting the belief in evolution. He then began to practice medicine in the Karoo, but continued his work around mammals and evolution theory. His work was so highly regarded that in 1920, he was made a ‘Fellow of the Royal Society’.
Broom’s interest in palaeontology was further fuelled after Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child, a fossil given the species name Australopithecus africanus, which means ‘southern ape of Africa’.
In 1934, upon the request of Transvaal Museum, Pretoria. It was there that he began to search for early hominids, seeking more specimens of Dart’s spectacular Australopithecus africanus. In 1936, with his students, he found the fragments of six hominids in the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ area (Sterkfontein Valley landscape in both western Gauteng and the North West Province).
Since 1936, thousands of fossils that show human evolution over the past 3.5 million years have been found, but one of the most significant discoveries was made in 1947 by Broom and John Robinson. They discovered the ‘most complete’ australopithecine skull, which Bloom named Paranthropus robustus, nickname ‘Mrs Ples’, also known by the catalogue number STS 5.
Another of Broom’s major finds was STS 14, a partial skeleton that consisted of much of a pelvis, femur, and vertebral column and proved convincingly that australopithecines had walked upright.
Shortly before his death, Broom published his monograph, which led to most scientists finally accepting that the australopithecines were in fact hominids, and not apes. Robert Broom died in 1951, having made an enormous contribution to the study of prehistoric life, which broadens our understanding of human existence.
Among hundreds of articles contributed by him to scientific journals, some of the most important include:
‘Fossil Reptiles of South Africa’ in Science in South Africa (1905)
‘Reptiles of Karroo Formation’ in Geology of Cape Colony (1909)
‘Development and Morphology of the Marsupial Shoulder Girdle’ in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1899)
‘Comparison of Permian Reptiles of North America with Those of South Africa’ in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (1910)
‘Structure of Skull in Cynodont Reptiles’ in Proceedings of the Zoological Society (1911)
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