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Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer
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Scientist
    (February 24, 1907-May 17, 2004)
    Born in East London, South Africa
    Curator of the East London Museum in South Africa
    Known for her role in the rediscovery of the Coelacanth (December 22, 1938)
    Ichthyologist James Smith named the coelacanth genus Latimeria in her honor
    An early engagement broke up because her fiancee complained about her 'madness in collecting plants and climbing trees after birds.'
    Her letter to James Smith describing the coelacanth and asking for help in identifying it did not reach him until January 3 since he was on leave due to illness.
    By the time Smith sent her a wire telling her to preserve the fish's viscera, she had already had it gutted and skinned at a taxidermist's.
    As a result, no one would learn what the coelacanth's internal organs were like until a second one was caught -- fourteen years later.
    One letter published in 'Nature' complained that the coelacanth should never have been named after her because she did science 'a disservice' by failing to preserve all of the fish.
    Despite no formal training as a curator, she transformed the East London Museum from a backwater (its original holdings were 'six birds riddled with beetles, a bottled piglet with six legs, about 12 pictures of East London, which were quite nice, and 12 prints of Kaffir War scenes') to a world-class institution.
    She tried to have the coelacanth frozen, but the only two places with large enough facilities, the town cold storage and the mortuary, refused to let it in, and she resorted to the taxidermist only when the fish started to decompose.
    Smith defended her in 'Nature,' writing, 'It was the energy and determination of Miss Latimer which saved so much, and scientific workers have good cause to be grateful. The genus Latimeria stands as my tribute.'
    She modestly suggested that the fish should have been named after the skipper of the trawler that had caught the coelacanth.

Credit: C. Fishel


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