A Fish Caught in Time:
The Search for the Coelacanth

Author Samantha Weinberg
Paperback 220 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; First Edition (February 6, 2001)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060194952
ISBN-13: 9780060932855



In December, 1938 Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer a curator at the East London museum in South Africa was examining fish that had been brought in on a fishing trawler at the local docks. She usually inspected the daily catch looking for specimens for the East London museum's collection. On this particular day, an unusual fish caught her eye. It was a beautiful odd looking specimen, approximately 5 feet long with hard scales, four limb-like fins and a strange "puppy like" tail. Marjorie realizing it was a unique specimen, quickly purchased the fish and rushed to locate enough formaldehyde to preserve it. She didn't fully realize it at the time, but she had made the zoological discovery of the century! The strange fish turned out to be a Coelacanth (pronounced see-lo-canth), a species believed to have gone extinct over 50 million years ago! This discovery set off a gripping tale of the attempt to locate more Coelacanth in the Indian Ocean. Probably just as interesting as this amazing discovery, is the interesting personalities that became associated with the search that are outlined in this book, chiefly:

  • Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young curator of the East London museum who made the initial discovery. While not a formally trained scientist herself, she was an excellent amateur naturalist who realized the potential behind her discovery. In the book, she shows her resourcefulness in obtaining enough formaldehyde and freezer space in the small town of East London to preserve the specimen. She also quickly contacted J.L.B Smith, a noted amateur ichthyologist and another interesting character.
  • J.L.B. Smith, a South African chemistry professor by training, was a dedicated, obsessive amateur ichthyologist in his spare time. He verified Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer's discovery as indeed being a Coelacanth and dedicated the rest of his life to locating more specimens. The book outlines his raw determination and courage in discovering more specimens of Coelacanth. Smith was eventually appointed as a Professor in Ichthyology and published over 500 papers on fish and named over 370 new species!
  • Margaret Smith, the wife of J.L.B. Smith and his long suffering assistant in ichthyology. She joined her husband on fish collecting tips and proved her own scientific mettle in the search for more Coelacanth specimens. After her husband's passing, she assumed his role at the Institute and helped train future South African scientists in this area.
  • Eric Hunt, a true adventurer and owner of a sea trawler was also a keen amateur ichthyologist. He gave the Smith's the first indication that more Coelacanth may be located in the waters off of the Comoros Islands, where indeed more were discovered with his assistance.

The book also highlights the intense political competition that erupted between the French and English governments over the discovery and ownership of the Coelacanth specimens. Outlining once again, how politics can have a messy impacts on scientific discovery.

While the book is a fascinating read, its main theme should not be overlooked, "amateurs" in the natural sciences often can have astounding and everlasting impacts in these disciplines. So take heart, and carry on amateur naturalists!!

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