A Woman in Science

by Bernard Wood

March 14, 2018

Hertha de Villiers

Hertha de Villiers

Some people make an impression out of all proportion to the time you spend with them. For me, Hertha de Villiers – who died at the end of May last year – was one of those people.

My first visit to the University of the Witwatersrand was in 1972. I went to gather data for my PhD thesis. The Anatomy Department was still in its old home on Hospital Street in downtown Johannesburg. Phillip Tobias (PVT) had taken over the headship of the Anatomy Department from Raymond Dart in 1959, and in 1972 he was close to the height of his influence. I was a pretty small fry, so while PVT was courteous to me, I saw little of him.

I stayed in the old YMCA on Rissik Street in Braamfontein. I was very much an outlier – most of those staying there were Afrikaans-speaking long-term residents studying accountancy. The rooms were sparsely furnished, the bed hard, the shared toilets and bathrooms spartan, and the food basic. It was not much fun. Alan Hughes, who was PVT’s Head Technician and in day-to-day charge of the excavations at Sterkfontein, took pity on me, inviting me to his flat for a meal and to Sterkfontein for a braai. But it was Hertha de Villiers who saved the day. When we talked she sensed I was not looking forward to the weekends when I would have time on my hands, so she invited me out to her home. She lived in Halfway House, which is literally mid-way between Johannesburg and Pretoria. In 1972 Halfway House was still a rural community and her home was a stark contrast to the YMCA – it was comfortable, it had a pool and it was surrounded by bush. Hertha, her husband Bungy, and her daughter Phillippa, were kind and generous hosts.

Hertha had worked her way up through the ranks in the Wits Anatomy Department. She started as a Technical Assistant when she joined the department in 1951, but she was encouraged by Raymond Dart to conduct her own research. The three research articles she published in 1954 were recognized by the award of a ‘B.Sc. Honours equivalent,’ and in 1956 she was promoted to Lecturer. Hertha decided to focus her research on the comparative morphology of the cranium, and by 1957 she had achieved enough to be awarded an M.Sc. She registered for a PhD, which was awarded in 1963 for her thesis entitled ‘A biometrical and morphological study of the skull of the South African Bantuspeaking Negro.’ Five years later it was published by the University of the Witwatersrand Press as ‘The Skull of the South African Negro.’ It is a meticulous study, written in crystal clear and elegant prose, and one of the first applications of multivariate methods in biological anthropology. My copy is well-thumbed, and I used it as the template for my own monograph on the Koobi Fora cranial remains. 

Hertha de Villiers


Book cover of The Skull by Hertha de Villiers


In 1972, when we first met, Hertha was promoted to Associate Professor. She repaid Dart’s encouragement with admiration, respect and loyalty that were palpable. She could not generate the same for PVT, and that made for an uncomfortable working relationship. It also did not help that PVT never really understood, or appreciated the potential of, the multivariate quantitative methods she used in her research. Hertha was much happier after she transferred to the Department of General Anatomy in the Wits Faculty of Dentistry in 1974, where she remained until her retirement in 1984. She had that elusive quality that generates respect without demanding it. The students revered her.

I have recently reviewed* a book that is critical of how individuals like Hertha behaved before the apartheid regime was replaced. For example, just because Hertha De Villiers called her 1968 book The Skull of the South African Negro − for good reasons because the South African government had sullied the use of Bantu − it makes no sense to attempt to suppress appreciations of her and her career, as some have apparently attempted to do. As I wrote in the review “although times have changed, the worth of individuals and their work has not.”

Hertha was a pioneer in many ways, not least because she was a woman in what was most definitely the ‘man’s world’ that was the Anatomy Department in the Wits Medical School in the 1970s. I am indebted to Hertha for her scientific example and for her friendship. She gave me the attached picture by a South African artist; it is a treasured possession.

Picture of flying white birds


Wood, B. (2018), The complex history of human origins research in South Africa. Evolutionary Anthropology. doi:10.1002/evan.21580