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Smith, James Leonard Brierley


(b. Graaff-Reinet, Cape Province (now South Africa), 26 September 1897; d. Grahamstown, South Africa, 8 January 1968) ichthyology, fishes of the Western Indian Ocean, discovery and identification of the coelacanth.

The most eminent ichthyologist that South Africa has produced, Smith is particularly notable for his seminal role in the discovery, identification, and description of the

first two coelacanths, a “living fossil” fish believed to have died out some 70 million years ago. He was also an unrivaled authority on the fishes of the western Indian Ocean.

Early Life Born of English parents in the small Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where his father was postmaster, Smith did undergraduate studies in chemistry at the Victoria College, Stellenbosch, which were interrupted by World War I service in East Africa as a machine gunner in the 12th South African Infantry regiment. Invalided out of the army after contracting malaria, Malta fever, and dysentery, he completed his BA (1917) and MSc (cum laude; 1918) at the Victoria College before proceeding to Selwyn College, Cambridge, on an Ebden Scholarship. There he worked on mustard gas under Sir William Pope and photosensitizing dyestuffs under William Hobson Mills, obtaining a PhD in 1922.

On his return to South Africa, Smith joined the Department of Chemistry at Rhodes University College, Grahamstown, where over the years his work resulted in some dozen research papers and three undergraduate textbooks. However, his deep lifelong interest in fishes was competing ever more strongly with his work in chemistry, and in 1931 he published his first of more than two hundred papers on ichthyology, a field in which he had received no formal training and in which he had few collaborators other than his wife Margaret (née Macdonald). In 1946 Smith received a research fellowship in ichthyology from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research while in 1947 a research Department of Ichthyology was founded at Rhodes University enabling Smith, who was still officially a member of the Department of Chemistry, to devote all his time and energy to Ichthyology.

Discovery of the Coelacanth On 22 December 1938 Smith’s life changed dramatically. When a local trawler, the Nerine (see note following entry), caught an unknown fish of curious appearance near the mouth of the Chalumna River, some thirty kilometers (nineteen miles) southwest of East London, South Africa, the captain, Hendrik Goosen, handed it to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of the East London Museum. Strongly suspecting its importance, she requested Smith, who was well known to her as a leading South African ichthyologist, to identify it. He was incredulous for, to his utter astonishment, it turned out to be a living coelacanth, a member of a group of fishes that had first appeared some 300 million years ago but were long believed to be extinct as none of the numerous fossil specimens that had been found were later than about 70 million years.

The coelacanth discovery was announced at a meeting of the Royal Society of South Africa in Cape Town on 15 March 1939, followed by a note in Nature three days later and a more detailed description in the next issue of the Transactions of the society. An event without parallel in the history of the life sciences, the discovery was at first greeted with disbelief but very soon aroused the utmost excitement throughout the scientific world. Smith named the fish Latimeria chalumnae, in honor of CourtenayLatimer and the place of its discovery. He concluded that this was a stray that had been carried far from its natural home, probably by the Mozambique current.

To Smith’s dismay the soft parts of the fish had not been saved, and he was determined to find a second, intact, specimen, which he believed would be found far to the north in the western Indian Ocean, where, in his own words, he could imagine “natives feasting on succulent coelacanth steaks on a remote Madagascar shore” (1971, p. 292). Thus after an inevitable delay caused by World War II, he had thousands of copies of a leaflet printed in English, French, and Portuguese and systematically distributed throughout the coastal regions of the western Indian Ocean. This not only included a photograph of the first coelacanth but also the offer of a reward of £100 for each of the first two specimens caught—then half the price of a small car! To his great joy, late in December 1952 Smith received a cable from Eric Hunt, the English captain of a trading schooner that undertook regular voyages in the area, informing him that Hunt had found a coelacanth off Anjouan, one of the Comoros, a group of French-controlled islands located east of northern Madagascar.

Desperate to bring the coelacanth back to South Africa for preservation and detailed study before it deteriorated, Smith managed to contact Daniel François Malan, the newly elected South African prime minister, who was recuperating at the Cape. To his great credit Malan (a trained, conservative theologian) at once authorized the use of a South African Air Force (SAAF) Dakota aircraft in order to bring the fish back to South Africa. The discovery of a second coelacanth was once more the cause of worldwide excitement, particularly as its internal structure could now be studied in detail. While on the Comoros, Smith discovered that coelacanths had been known to the native fishermen for centuries—although not to the French authorities. They were not in fact regarded locally as good eating!

Since that time numerous further specimens have been discovered in the western Indian Ocean stretching from Malindi, off the coast of Kenya (2001), to substantial numbers at Sodwana, in the Greater St. Lucia Wetland National Park in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa (2000). Thus hopefully Smith’s early fears of the extinction of the coelacanth as a result of it being limited to the Comoros have become significantly less likely.

Other Work Throughout his professional life Smith was closely assisted by his wife Margaret, an accomplished artist who illustrated his works. He traveled widely in the western Indian Ocean, becoming a world authority on the fishes of that area as well as the principal authority on southern African marine fishes. His major work, The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa (1949), was reprinted a number of times. The publication of this substantial work was so eagerly awaited that the first edition of five thousand copies sold out in three weeks and it has been said that “There is probably no other ichthyologist who can claim to have queues forming outside bookshops on the day his regional monograph was published” (Greenwood, 1968, p. 690). In 1963 Smith and his wife jointly published Fishes of Seychelles.

Always sympathetic to the needs of both laymen and anglers, and more than happy to share his knowledge with them, Smith published well over 400 popular and semiscientific articles, as well as describing more than 375 fishes new to science. His health was never robust and, fearing that he would become a burden to others, he died by his own hand in Grahamstown in January 1968.

Note: On the outbreak of war in 1939 the Nerine was commandeered by the South African Navy and, after being painted grey and fitted with a 3-inch gun, assumed duty as a minesweeper. In November 1941 she played a key role in the rescue from the remote and desolate South West African (laterNamibian) shore of the survivors of the wrecked liner the Dunedin Star.



“A Living Fish of the Mesozoic Type.” Nature 143 (1939) 455–456.

“A Surviving Fish of the Order Actinistia.” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 27, no. 1 (1939): 47–50. Reprinted in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 47, no. 1 (1989): 9–17.

“A Living Coelacanthid Fish from South Africa.” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 28 (1940): 1–106.

The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Central News Agency, 1949.

“The Second Coelacanth.” Nature 171 (1953): 99–101.

Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth. London: Longmans, Green, 1956.

With Margaret M. Smith. Fishes of Seychelles. Grahamstown, South Africa: Department of Ichthyology, Rhodes University, 1963.


Bruton, Michael N. “The Living Coelacanth Fifty Years Later.” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 47, no. 1 (1989): 19–28.

“Coelacanth.” Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, vol. 3, pp. 292–294. Cape Town: Nasou. 12 vols., 1970–1976.

De Vos, Luc, and Dalmas Oyugi. “First Capture of a Coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae Smith, 1939 (Pisces: Latimeridae), off Kenya.” South African Journal of Science 98 (2002): 345–347.

Greenwood, Peter Humphry. “Professor J. L. B Smith [Obituary].” Nature 217 (1968): 690–691.

Smith, Margaret M. “J. L. B. Smith: His Life, Work, Bibliography, and List of New Species.” Rhodes University Department of Ichthyology Occasional Paper 16, pp. 173–214. Grahamstown: South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, 1969. Includes a complete bibliography of Smith’s publications, both scientific and popular.

Weinberg, Samantha. A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

P. E. Spargo

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