Dr Robert Broom

Dr Robert Broom

Robert Broom was born in Scotland in 1866 to a poor family. Educated as a doctor specializing in midwifery, he used that profession to support himself while travelling the world. Fascinated by the origin of the mammals, he travelled to Australia in 1892. Five years later, he went to South Africa, where he would stay for the rest of his life.

In 1910 Broom’s insistence on the theory of evolution cost him his position at the University of Stellenbosch, an extremely conservative religious institution, and he started practicing medicine in the remote Karroo region of South Africa. He also practised paleontology, becoming the world’s leading expert on the mammal-like reptiles which were found in abundance in the region. His paleontological work was so highly regarded that in 1920 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1934, aged 68, he gave up his medical practice to take a position at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. In 1936 he decided to search for more of Dart’s australopithecines, and in the same year found a fragmentary skull of an adult at Sterkfontein (which he initially placed in a new genus, Plesianthropus). In 1938, he found the first robust australopithecine skull at Kromdraai after a schoolboy discovered some teeth at the site. Further finds followed, but it was not until Broom published a major monograph on the australopithecines in 1946 and the influential British scientist W. E. Le Gros Clark examined the fossils in 1947 that most scientists finally accepted that the australopithecines were hominids. Other major finds included Sts 5, a superb fossil skull, and Sts 14, a partial skeleton which consisted of much of a pelvis, femur, and vertebral column and proved convincingly that australopithecines had walked upright.

In 1948 he started excavating at Swartkrans, which yielded remains of what was later determined to be Homo erectus, as well as further australopithecine fossils.

Somewhat of an eccentric, Broom, conscious of his standing as a medical man, always dressed in a formal dark suit even when fossil hunting, but would strip naked when it got too hot. He remained prodigiously energetic until the end of his life. Broom had promised that he would “wear out, not rust out”, and was true to his word. In 1951, after writing the finishing lines of his monograph on the australopithecines, he whispered “Now that’s finished … and so am I”. He died moments later at the age of 85.


Tattersall I. (1995): The fossil trail: how we know what we think we know about human evolution. Oxford,NY: Oxford University Press. Wills C. (1993): The runaway brain: the evolution of human uniqueness. New York: Basic Books.

Information taken from here.

Robert Broom entry from Gazetter Scotland

1866 – 1951Palaeontologist. Born in Paisley, Broom studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, then emigrated, eventually settling in South Africa (1897). For a brief period he became Professor of Zoology and Geology at Victoria, before returning to medical practice. On retiring from medicine, at the age of 68, he took the post of Palaeontologist to the Transvaal Museum (1934). He made a spectacular discovery in 1938, the partial skeleton of an early hominid, Australopithecus Robustus, including evidence proving that it had walked upright.

Broom had a reputation as an eccentric, dressing in a formal dark suit even when fossil hunting, only to strip naked when it became too hot. Broom always suggested that he would “wear out, not rust out” and, true to his word, he remained prodigiously energetic until the end of his life. In 1951, after writing the final lines of the monograph describing his research, he whispered “Now that’s finished … and so am I” and died moments later at the age of 85.

Text taken from Gazetter for Scotland Website

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