There’s a moment, I’ve realized, for each scientist I study, when they transform from an abstract, historical figure into a human being. This character-to-human transition happens quickly, and the shift is striking—as if they’ve transcended the two dimensional world left behind in their written letters and suddenly sprung to life. In this moment, without warning, I feel empathy for this once living, breathing human. Their successes, decisions, and shortcomings all begin to come into focus as a part of a complex, imperfect person.
That magical transformation happened for me today with a historical subject central to my dissertation research: Raymond Dart. I’m currently working in Dart’s archives at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. This is the most fun part of being a historian–a chance to examine the correspondence and notebooks of past scientists; documents that tell us so much more than published scientific papers. Big moments can happen in the archives. For example, the first time you truly see a historical figure as a person. That happened this week when I saw this tiny picture:
This is Dart, at the age of 80, visiting the Cradle of Humankind. He touches the statue that guards the entrance to the Sterkfontein cave. The statue is of his old friend Robert Broom, who proudly holds his famous hominin discovery, Mrs. Ples. I’d like to think that, in the moment captured by this photograph, Dart was meditating on his memories of Broom. Broom was a passionate, quirky man who both shaped–and was shaped by–Dart’s career. After Dart found his “missing link” fossil in 1924 (the Taung Child), Broom burst into Dart’s lab, strode over to the skull, and knelt before it “in adoration of our ancestor.” While other scientists dismissed Dart’s Taung Child as merely an ape, Broom stood alone defending Dart’s views–even when Dart himself was too defeated to defend himself. I like to envision these memories flashing across Dart’s mind.
I imagine Dart would have recalled Broom’s commitment to exploring caves like Sterkfontein, a commitment that was inspired by Dart’s Taung discovery, a commitment that ultimately yielded dozens of fossil hominins. I wonder if Dart reflected on how Broom fossil hunted well into his 80s, or if he chuckled remembering Broom’s preference for hunting for fossils in the nude (Broom was a strong believer in sunshine). I wonder if he quietly thanked Broom for his discoveries, as those finds ultimately helped solidify Dart’s Taung Child as a possible human ancestor.
Dart and Broom were unlikely allies. They were both passionate, witty men, and it was simply historical coincidence that their paths crossed in 1925. Reflecting on their friendship after Broom’s death, Dart remarked, “had we been together as competitive young men we could easily have crossed swords; my satisfaction has rested in the fact that not even a cross word ever passed between us.”
I imagine that, while looking at this statue, Dart would have taken a moment to remember Broom as both a personal friend and a passionate leader in the twentieth-century search for human origins. While it’s just a tiny photo of an elderly man touching a small statue, this image is wonderfully meaningful to me. It’s a reminder that the scientists I study were more than just wielders of calipers and defenders of theories, they were humans–humans who had valuable friendships, grand hopes, and fond memories.