mcourtenay.jpgMarjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer, a renowned South African museum curator who discovered an ancient fish, died on May 17 of pneumonia. She was 97.
Courtenay-Latimer always had a passion for ornithology, botany and cultural history. At 24, she became the first curator of the East London natural history museum. Over the next four decades, she turned it into a world-class facility. Much of its original collection came from her family’s archive, including what is believed to be the only dodo egg in existence.
Courtenay-Latimer loved working in the field. On weekends, she enhanced the museum’s exhibits with wild flowers, birds’ eggs and insects she gathered. In 1935, she and Eric Wilson excavated an almost complete fossil skeleton of the dicynodont Kannemeyeria simocephalus, a dinosaur of the Triassic period.
She became friendly with local fishermen while studying sea birds on the west coast of South Africa. In 1938, the captain of an area trawler contacted her about an unusual fish he had caught. When Courtenay-Latimer arrived at the fish market, she immediately noticed the creature’s unique blue fin, iridescent silver-blue-green sheen and puppy-dog tail. Convinced the fish was unique, she decided to take the 127 lb. specimen back to her museum and have it preserved.
Unable to find any texts that positively identified the fish, Courtenay-Latimer requested the aid of James Smith, a chemistry professor at Rhodes University who had taught himself ichthyology. After examining its remains, he confirmed that the fish was a coelacanth, a creature thought to have been extinct for 70 million years. This discovery sparked an international search for other coelacanths. The fish’s genus was named Latimeria chulumnae after Marjorie and the river where it was found.
Courtenay-Latimer spent her later years writing a book on wild flowers and establishing the Gonubie bird sanctuary.