Remembering Courtenay-Latimer, an East London icon

Monday February 24 represented a special date in East London’s history as it marked the 113th birthday of the late Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.

UNIQUE: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with a gold R2 coin minted to mark the 60th anniversary of the coelacanth’s discovery
Picture: Gary Horlor.

Courtenay-Latimer is easily one of the city’s most famous citizens and her pivotal role in the discovery of the coelacanth have secured her place in history.

The future curator of the East London Museum was born in Aliwal North in 1907. The daughter of a station master working for South African Railways, her childhood was mostly spent moving between stations whenever her father was transferred.

She showed an interest in the natural world from an early age, often collecting shells, fossils and plants whenever she was out and about.

When she got older, Courtenay-Latimer initially trained to become a nurse before she came across the notice calling for applications for the role of curator at the EL Museum.

Despite having no prior experience, her wealth of naturalistic expertise amazed the interviewers and she was hired in August 1931.

The discovery that would go on to make Courtenay-Latimer a household name came about on December 22, 1938, when she received a call from her friend, Captain Hendrik Goosen.

Courtenay-Latimer had met Goosen, then the captain of a fishing trawler, during an earlier expedition on Bird Island in Algoa Bay.

He had phoned to report an interesting fish that had been caught in his net during his latest fishing expedition in the Chalumna River mouth.

When Courtenay-Latimer arrived on the docks, she found a large, blue fish in amongst Goosen’s catch that she couldn’t quite identify.

She had it transported back to the museum but after combing through her reference books, she found nothing that could help her figure out what it was.

With no other way to store it, Courtenay-Latimer had a part-time taxidermist preserve the fish minus its insides and turned to someone who might be able to help: Dr JLB Smith, a senior chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University.

After examining the drawing sent by Courtenay-Latimer, Smith was able to identify it as a coelacanth. The discovery was formally named Latimeria chalumnae in honour of its discoverer, and the rest is history.

Courtenay-Latimer continued working at the East London Museum until her retirement in 1973 although she continued to be involved in museum affairs.

She passed away in 2004 at the age of 97.


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