Updated: Jul 3, 2020
On 22 December 1938, 32-year-old East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer made one of the greatest zoological discoveries of the early 20th century.
Courtenay-Latimer had a standing arrangement with local fisherman Hendrick Goosen to inspect any out-of-the-ordinary catches - and the fish which landed on Goosen's trawler on that hot, East London day most certainly fitted the bill.
"At 10.30am my newly installed phone rang to say the trawler Nerine had docked and had a number of specimens for me," she later recalled.
"I was busy completing the creating of a fossil reptile in a case, and at first thought “what shall I do with fish now? So near Christmas?” Then I considered I should go down and wish the men on the trawler a “Happy Christmas”. So I rang for a taxi and went down to the fishing wharf.
"It was now 11:45 and all the men had left leaving an old Scotsman who said 'Lass they have all gone but I will show you the specimens set aside for you by Capt. Goosen.' I picked away at a layer of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen ... pale mauvy blue, with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy-dog tail."
Courtenay-Latimer had no idea what the fish was, but knew it must go back to the museum at once. At first the taxi driver refused to have the reeking, five-foot fish in his cab, but after a heated discussion, he drove Marjorie and her specimen back to the museum.
Raking through the few reference books on hand, she found a picture that led her to a seemingly impossible conclusion. Her specimen bore similarities to a prehistoric fish, particularly in the structure of the head and the tri-lobed shape of the tail.
She made a quick, crude sketch of the creature, together with a short description, and mailed it to Rhodes University's J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry professor but who had a well-known passion for fish.
Smith, however, was away for Christmas holidays and in East London, Marjorie's museum director at the time dismissed the fish as a common rock cod.
Then, on 3 January 3, 1939, she heard back from Smith in a now famous cable: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED."
However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded. A search for them in the museum and town trash bins proved fruitless. Even photographs taken of the preparation had somehow been spoiled.
When Smith finally arrived at the East London Museum on 16 February, he immediately identified it as a coelacanth, a prehistoric species which represented an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals, but which was believed to have become extinct some 66 million years ago.
After a Daily Dispatch reporter was allowed to take a single photograph of the mounted coelacanth, the picture soon spread around the world, with Courtenay-Latimer and Smith becoming international celebrities.
When a public viewing was arranged for Sunday, 19 February, the largest crowd ever received on a single day crowded into the museum to witness the specimen - prompting Marjorie to quip that she had never before had so many surprisingly intelligent questions asked of her.
Sources: SA History Online, East London Museum & DinoFish.