Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer (February 24, 1907-May 17, 2004) was the South African museum official who in 1938 brought to the attention of the world the existence of the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for seventy million years.
Courtenay-Latimer was born in either Aliwal North, South Africa or East London, South Africa (sources differ), the daughter of a stationmaster for the state railroad. She was sickly child, but took an avid interest in nature. When she visited her grandmother on the coast, she was fascinated by the lighthouse on Bird Island . At age eleven, she vowed she would become an expert on birds. After school, she wanted to work in a museum but became a nurse because of the lack of opportunities. She completed her training, but at the last moment was asked to become the curator of the new East London Museum in East London, South Africa. At age twenty-four, with no formal training, she was hired in August 1931.
She busily worked on collecting rocks, feathers, shells, and the like for her museum, and made her desire to see unusual specimens known to fishermen. On December 22, 1938, she received a telephone call that such a fish had been brought in. She went to the docks to inspect the catch of Hendrik Goosen. "I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she said. "It was five foot long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail."
She hauled the fish to her musuem in a taxi and tried to find the fish in her books without success. She was eager to preserve the fish and, having no facilities at the museum, took it to the morgue--which wouldn't have the thing. Courtenay-Latimer tried to contact James Leonard Brierly Smith , a friend who taught at Rhodes University, to help her identify it, but he was away. Courtney-Latimer reluctantly sent it to a taxidermist to skin and gut it.
When Smith finally arrived on February 16, 1939, he instantly recognized the fish as a coelacanth. "There was not a shadow of a doubt," he said. "It could have been one of those creatures of 200 million years ago come alive again." Smith would give it the scientific name Latimeria chalumnae after his friend and the Chalumna River , where it was found. It would be fourteen more years before another was brought in.
Courtenay-Latimer spent the rest of her career at the museum, retiring first to a farm at Tsitskikamma where she wrote a book on flowers and then back to East London. She never married and died in East London, aged ninety-seven.
- "Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer." The Daily Telegraph (London). May 19, 2004.
- Myrna Oliver. "Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, 97; Confirmed Rare Fish's Existence." Los Angeles Times. June 13, 2004. pg. B.16
- Jeremy Pearce. "Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, Naturalist, Is Dead at 97." New York Times. June 7, 2004. pg. B.6
- Keith S. Thompson. Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
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