J. L. B. Smith

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James Leonard Brierley Smith, known as J.L.B. Smith (26 October 1897 – 7 January 1968) was a South African ichthyologist, organic chemist and university professor.[1] He was the first to identify a taxidermied fish as a coelacanth, at the time thought long extinct.

Image of the late J.L.B. Smith, renowned South African ichthyologist

Early life[edit]

Born in Graaff-Reinet, Smith was the elder of two sons of Joseph Smith and his wife, Emily Ann Beck.[1] Educated at country schools at Noupoort, De Aar, and Aliwal North, he finally matriculated in 1914 from the Diocesan College, Rondebosch.[1] He obtained a BA degree in Chemistry from the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1916 and an MSc degree in Chemistry at Stellenbosch University in 1918. Smith went to the United Kingdom, where he received his Ph.D at Cambridge University in 1922. After returning to South Africa, he became Senior Lecturer and later on an Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

From 1922 to 1937, he was married to Henrietta Cecile Pienaar, who was a descendant of Andrew Murray, and whose father was a minister of the NG Kerk at Somerset West. Three children resulted from the marriage.[1]

In Grahamstown, he met Margaret Mary Macdonald, born at Indwe in the Eastern Cape on 26 September 1916.[2] After her school education, she studied at Rhodes University, where she obtained a B.Sc. degree in Physics and Chemistry. She had intended to study medicine, but in 1938 married Smith and became his assistant in the department of ichthyology at the university.[2]

His interest in ichthyology was sparked in childhood during a vacation in Knysna.[3]

Discovery of the coelacanth[edit]

In 1938, Smith was informed of the discovery of an unusual and unidentified fish by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum. When he arrived in East London in February 1939, he was able to identify it immediately as a coelacanth, which was then thought to have been extinct for over 65 million years, and he named the species Latimeria after her. In December 1952, Professor Smith acquired another specimen which had been caught off the Comoros Islands. Local trader Eric Hunt had cabled Smith, who then persuaded the South African government to fly him in a SAAF Dakota to collect the preserved fish for study at Grahamstown.[4]

Smith and his wife Margaret worked jointly on the popular Sea Fishes of South Africa, which was first published in 1949, followed by other writings until 1968. Among these were over 500 papers on fish and the naming of some 370 new fish species.

Death and legacy[edit]

Smith was suffering from cancer when he took his own life on 7 January 1968 by cyanide poisoning. According to those who knew him, he had said years earlier that he had no intention of living past 70.[5] His widow Margaret founded the Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown on the 13th of December 1968 in honor of her husband.[6] His son is the renowned South African television science and mathematics teacher William Smith.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Smith, James Leonard Brierley". Dictionary of South African Biography IV. Human Sciences Research Council. 1981. pp. 580–2. ISBN 0-409-09183-9. 
  2. ^ a b "Smith, James Leonard Brierley". Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa 10. Nasou Limited. 1971. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-625-00324-2. 
  3. ^ Clymer, Eleanor (1966). Search for a Living Fossil. Scholastic. p. 15. 
  4. ^ Cotter, Jarrod Flying Fishcart article Fly Past magazine February 2006 pp78-9
  5. ^ Weinberg, Samantha (19 December 2008). "Curse of the fish that time forgot: Believed to be extinct for 65million years - it returned with chilling consequences". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 2 May 2009. 
  6. ^ J.L.B. Smith: his life, work, bibliography and list of new species. Grahamstown: Department of Ichthyology, Rhodes University. 1969. 

External links[edit]