The Strange Death of a Strange Man
October 19, 2015
TWO YOUNG UNIVERSITY STUDENTS in South Africa were gawking at some rare bones in the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria. They had come upon a display of Australopithecine in a glass case. “Hey Manfred, read this guy’s bio in the wall frame.” Peter waited for his friend to read the bio of the man connected to the bones. He was sure Manfred’s eyes would widen when he got to the very end and they did. They both peered at the bones some more, entranced.
“You know, Peter, the story of Dr. Robert Broom would make a great classic Twilight Zone episode, don’t you think?” Manfred put out the question.
“Yes, it would,” Peter agreed.
“If I were doing the episode as the director, filmed all in black and white, like the originals, I would first give a little background material about Dr. Broom somehow, and then I would deliver the bizarre punch lines,” Manfred explained.
An amused Peter asked, squinting at the framed bio, “You mean about how he was born desperately poor in 1866 in Scotland and somehow he was able to get enough education to specialize as a doctor in midwifery so that he could support his obsession with paleontology?”
“Yes,” Manfred answered. “Imagine the struggle for a poor Scottish lad to get that far along, but he did it, bless him, he did it—with so much stacked against him. The monetary rewards of a medical profession allowed him to visit Australia in 1892, to study the possible origin of mammals. Within five more years he was able to go to South Africa, a land he loved. He remained there for the rest of his life.”
Peter asked another question. “Didn’t he once have a job teaching at a university, a rather prim institution, and he lost his position because of his belief in the theory of evolution?”
“Yes!” Manfred agreed. “He lost his teaching job at the University of Stellenbosch, so he decided to go practice medicine in the Karroo region of South Africa. You know the bio better than I, my friend. I think you are toying with me. He did his paleontology on the side and became a leading expert on certain abundant reptiles in the region. They were more mammal-like than anyone had ever seen. The energetic Dr. Broom told others that he intended to wear out and not rust out. In 1934, when he was sixty-eight years old, he did not become a fossil himself, but started a second life that involved his true calling, becoming a paleontologist first and foremost. He was able to get a job right here where we are standing—it was then called the Transvaal Museum. His appetite for investigation was whetted when he heard rumors that a school boy had found some odd teeth near Kromdraai. His late-in-life digging, brushing and sifting resulted in his making some terrific discoveries, including many bones and a skull of Australopithecus Robustus. These bone discoveries proved that it was a hominid that walked upright. In fact he made many important paleontological discoveries, was very highly regarded, and was made a fellow in the Royal Society.”
Peter decided to egg his friend on even more. “Okay, now you are making your Twilight Zone-style episode about Dr. Robert Broom. You have somehow gotten this background information across to your audience by way of some vignettes acted by brilliant actors. What turn does your production take next, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Glad you asked that! Yes, we have shown these highlights of his earlier life in little acted pieces, then, the main scenes of him will dwell on these paleontological expeditions of great discovery. I will get a superb actor to play his part. Too bad Paul Muni is no longer available. Broom was an eccentric man. He always did his field work and digging and sifting in a formal dark suit, with starched white collars, the same attire he wore for his midwifery. I would show several scenes of his doing his field work, and one of him making his greatest discovery—the blissful joy, readable on his face.”
“The ‘eureka’ moment?” Peter asked another question. “Say, didn’t he almost suffocate there in South Africa wearing that type of clothing in the field all of the time?”
“Yes, he would have, but for this strange trait he had. Whenever he got to the suffocating point he would strip off all his clothes, every stitch of them, and continue his work in the altogether,” Manfred answered.
“Completely naked? How curious. Would you show this in your Twilight Zone-style production?”
“Of course. That is what would make it great—the realism. He was known for this—taking off all of his clothes when the heat got unbearable and continuing his work in his birthday suit. Scenery would be placed strategically. You would be able to tell he was sans clothing, but there would be cameraman tricks to prevent any real exposure, tree branches and so forth. Then I would work up to the final scene.”
“And what would that be, Director Manfred?”
“He is eighty-five years old. He is clothed by the way, and sitting at his desk working on his end-all, be-all paper about australopithecines. He has worked on it for long periods of time, methodically. It is getting near completion. He has always said he would wear out and not rust out, as you remember. He writes the last line of his monograph and whispers, ‘Now that is finished, and so am I.’ Then, in a matter of a seconds, he dies. Yes. He dies.”
“Whoa! Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” Peter said with a grin. “You may have a future in pictures.”
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of short features and stories on the strange, mysterious, and often unexplained.