Remarkable People

ID #5210

JLB Smith, Icthyologist, South Africa.

James Leonard Brierley Smith (1897–1968) was the ichthyologist who first identified a coelacanth.

His interest in ichthyology was sparked by a childhood vacation in Knysna. Born in Graaff Reinet in 1897, Smith obtained a BA in chemistry from the University of the Cape of Good Hope (UCT) in 1916 and an MSc degree in chemistry at Stellenbosch University in 1918. He went to the United Kingdom where he received a PhD from Cambridge in 1922. After returning to South Africa, he became an associate professor of organic chemistry at Rhodes University in Grahamstown where he met his second wife, Margaret Mary McDonald.

In 1938, Smith was told about the discovery of an unusual fish by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum. When he arrived in East London in February 1939, he immediately identified the specimen as a coelacanth. At the time it was thought to have been extinct for over 65 million years. He named the species Latimeria after her. He was instrumental in organizing the search which produced a second specimen 14 years later.

Smith and Margaret worked jointly on the popular Sea Fishes of South Africa, which was first published in 1949, followed by other writings. Among these were over 500 papers on fish and the naming of some 370 new fish species.

Following a long illness he took his own life in 1968 by swallowing cyanide. His widow founded the Institute of Ichthyology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. RSAJLBS

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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:58
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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