Latimer’s life story

Professor Mike Bruton at the launch of his book, Curator and Crusader: The life and work of Majorie Courtenay-Latimer, on Saturday at the Courtenay-Latimer Hall, East London Museum
Picture:SIVENATHI GOSA

“Most of us know him best as a biologist for his research in ichthyology, his wide knowledge in marine life, his conservation imperative and coelacanth studies.
“He is a communicator par excellence,” Nancy Tietz said.

Tietz introduced Curator and Crusader:The life and work of Majorie Courtenay-Latimer author, professor Mike Bruton, at the book’s launch on Saturday at the Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer Hall at the East London Museum.

“He proposed something formal, that the word curator should feature in the title, as that is what Marjorie was.

“Curator and Crusader was just right, as Majorie was forever best known as one or the other.

“The one I remember was when she saved the Gately House,” Tietz said.

The book is the first biography written about the East London woman and her scientific discoveries.

Bruton explained that the book detailed Latimer’s life; from her humble beginnings living in remote Eastern Cape areas with her parents and five sisters to her days as the first South African bird ringer, pioneering museum curator, world famous figure and discoverer of the coelacanth.

Bruton said: “It took two-and-a-half years to research Latimer’s life and write the book.

“Searching through museum and library archives in East London and Makhanda, I discovered Latimer’s diaries, scrapbooks, essays, speeches and popular articles.” Bruton said.

“Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was an ornithologist, botanist, anthropologist and museum curator, she was the first curator of the East London Museum.

“She was acclaimed for her research on birds and plants as well as on isiXhosa customs.

“She created stunning displays, exhibitions and dioramas that were ahead of their time.

“The discovery of the coelacanth, the fossilised skeleton of a rare mammal-like reptile, ancient human footprints and a prehistoric human skull, would thrust her and the museum into the international limelight,” Bruton said. He said indicated that Latimer was the only museum curator in SA South Africa to received an honorary doctorate from a university.

“I don’t think people realise the recognition of Latimer’s services; not only did she have an African coelacanth named after her, but also a flowering plant, land snail and two sub species of birds.”

Bruton studied ichthyology at Rhodes and researched freshwater fishes in Africa and beyond, while also retaining a keen interest in the Coelacanth.

He has published his autobiography, When I was a Fish, Tales of an Ichthyologist, as well as The Annotated Old Fourlegs, The Updated Story of the Coelacanth, The Amazing Coelacanth and recently, The Fishy Smiths: A Biography of JLB Smith.

“A one-hour documentary on the life of Courtnay-Latimer will be available in the future,” he exclaimed.

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