Courtenay-Latimer, Marjorie

The discoverer of the Coelacanth in 1938 was the thirty-two-year-old Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer. She was born on 24 February 1907 and, being a premature baby, her parents thought that the weak sibling would not live very long. From a very young age she took a keen interest in the nature and more spesific in birds. She collected feathers and eggshells.

Courtenay-Latimer’s dream came true when she was appointed at the museum in East Londen in the Eastern Province of South Africa in 1933. Her entire life was now devoted to the museum. She gathered items from all over – wild flowers, seashells, butterflies, insects and local entomological material. Her enthusiasm for her work led to the end of her engagement as the fiancée did not like her passion for climbing trees, etc.

By 1938 she was the curator of the museum in the port town of East London. One of her friends, Captain Hendrick Goosen, a local seaman of the trawler Nerine, often sent word via the dock man to call Courtenay-Latimer to come and have a look for any unusual specimens she might want for her museum. On 22 December 1938 Goosen returned from a fishing trip off the mouth of the nearby Chalumna River and sent word that she should come to the docks. She used a taxi, and was about to leave again when she noticed a blue fin protruding beneath a pile of fish and sharks on the deck.

She later described the fish as “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings.” Enoch, her assistant, helped her to transport the 57,7 kg. fish to the museum. She knew the fish was significant and most probably dated back to prehistoric times as the scales was extremely hard, it had 4 fins resembling limbs, and had a funny tail similar to that of a puppy dog. She had to preserve the coelacanth and took it to the local undertaker who refused her the use iof a fridge. A taxidermist came to her assistance, but the inside got rotten and a lot of information on the fish’s innards got lost.

She then mailed a sketch and description of the fish to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry teacher at Rhodes University, Grahams Town, some fifty miles south of East Londen. He was well known locally for his passion for fish, but did not respond as he was away for the Christmas holidays. He however arrived at the East London museum on 16 February, and viewed the mounted specimen. According to him he â€Å“knew somewhere or somehow, a primitive fish of this nature would appear.” He immediately identified the fish as a coelacanth, which is as a member of what must be a still living coelacanth species.

It was soon announced as the “most important zoological find of the century” A living dinosaur, it was said, would be no more amazing than this incredible discovery. Professor Smith named the fish Latimeria chalumnae (Latimer and Chalumna River) in honour of Dr. Courtenay-Latimer who had spotted it and taken the time to preserve it.

Courtenay-Latimer lived to enjoy the later finds and sightings of more living species of the coelacanth. Scientists got a better understanding of this remarkable archetype fish in 1991 when Mike Bruton, of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology joined with Hans Fricke to study the fish off the Comoros Islands. Fricke’s self-built submarine was used to study the coelacanth in its natural habitat. It hides in underwater caves some 300 to 700 feet down during the day and comes out at night to feed.

When she retired she moved to a farm in the Tsitsikama area where she wrote a book on wild flowers. The Rhodes University (Grahams Town) acknowledged her work by conferring upon her an honorary degree in 1973. She died of pneumonia in East Londen on 17 May 2004 at the age of 97.