Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

Museum curator who discovered a living coelacanth
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The Independent Online

Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer, museum curator: born East London, South Africa 24 February 1907; Curator, then Director, East London Museum, Cape Province 1931-73; died East London 10 May 2004.

In December 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the world's most famous "living fossil", the coelacanth.

Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer, museum curator: born East London, South Africa 24 February 1907; Curator, then Director, East London Museum, Cape Province 1931-73; died East London 10 May 2004.

In December 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the world's most famous "living fossil", the coelacanth.

This primitive fish was thought to have died out 80 million years ago, in the time of the dinosaurs until, to the amazement of the scientific world, Courtenay-Latimer found a living specimen in the catch of a trawler off the Chalumna coast of South Africa. It was named Latimeria chalumnae in her honour. There are now known to be two species of coelacanth living respectively in deep water off the coast of Madagascar and off Sulawesi in Indonesia. Always elusive, it was not filmed live until 1997, nearly 60 years after its discovery.

The discovery of the coelacanth is one of the best-known stories of 20th-century zoology. At work in the local museum, of which she was then curator, Courtenay-Latimer received a call from the manager of a local trawler fleet suggesting she take a look at an unusual fish that had turned up in the catch.

Although her main interest was birds, not fish, she realised at once that this was something extraordinary, with its "heavy, almost armour-like scales, the fins resembling limbs" and "iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over", not to mention its "strange puppy-dog tail". Courtenay-Latimer bundled the 5ft-long, 127lb fish into a sack and took it back to the museum in a taxi. With the help of a local taxidermist, she preserved the specimen in formalin-soaked newspaper before contacting a fish specialist, Professor James Smith, of Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

Unfortunately Smith was away, and by the time he read Courtenay-Latimer's letter and attached drawing in January 1939, the coelacanth had had to be gutted and stuffed in case it rotted away in the heat of the South African summer. Even so, enough of it remained for Smith to identify a living prehistoric fish, a distant relative of the first vertebrates to walk on land. "A bomb seemed to burst in my brain," he recalled. "In spite of all this evidence, my intellect says that such things can't happen." The discovery caused a scientific sensation. Smith offered a £100 reward for another specimen, but it was not until 1952 that a second coelacanth was found, this time with guts and skeleton intact.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer spent most of her life in East London in the Eastern Cape. She was the daughter of a stationmaster on the South African Railways. Educated at Holy Cross Convent in Aliwal North, she came top of her class in most subjects except mathematics, and developed a passion for natural history, especially birds. Dark-haired, with sloe-black eyes, she was aged just 24 when she landed a job as curator of a new and largely empty museum in East London.

Noting that "there was nothing there to interest people", she began to fill it with a wide range of natural and cultural artefacts, including her mother's collection of local beadwork and her great-aunt Lavinia's dodo's egg. In her spare time she collected wild flowers, shells, insects and ethnological material for the museum, and took part in excavations of fossils, including a complete skeleton of the Triassic mammal-like reptile, Kannemeyia.

Long before her retirement in 1973, Courtenay-Latimer had turned the backwater museum into a world-class facility. That year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University in recognition of her work, especially in marine biology. In 2003, clay casts of her feet were made to adorn Heroes Park in East London, alongside those of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was also a founder member of the South African Museums Association, the Border Historical Society and the Border Wild Flower Association.

She never married; one suitor died, while another couldn't understand her "madness in collecting plants and climbing trees after birds".

Peter Marren

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