James Leonard Brierley Smith, known as
J. L. B. Smith (26 September
1897 – 8 January 1968), was a South African ichthyologist, organic
chemist and university professor. He was the first to identify a
taxidermied fish as a coelacanth, at the time thought long extinct.
1 Early life
2 Discovery of the coelacanth
3 Death and legacy
4 Further reading
6 External links
Born in Graaff-Reinet, 26 September 1897, Smith was the elder of two
sons of Joseph Smith and his wife, Emily Ann Beck. Educated at
country schools at Noupoort, De Aar, and Aliwal North, he finally
matriculated in 1914 from the Diocesan College, Rondebosch. 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 PhD 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
In Grahamstown, he met Margaret Mary Macdonald, born at Indwe in the
Eastern Cape on 26 September 1916. After her school education, she
studied at Rhodes University, where she obtained a BSc 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.
His interest in ichthyology was sparked in childhood during a vacation
Discovery of the coelacanth
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.
Smith and his wife Margaret worked jointly on the popular Sea Fishes
of Southern 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
Smith took his own life on 8 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. In the same year, Rhodes University
J. L. B. Smith Institute of
Ichthyology in memory of
J. L. B. Smith and to honour his lifetime achievements in ichthyology.
His widow, Prof. Margaret Smith, who had worked with her husband for
30 years, was appointed the first Director, with a staff of 5.
Margaret Smith embarked on a recruitment drive to attract
ichthyologists and to train up African ichthyologists. In 1977 the
large three-storey building which was designed and constructed in
Somerset Street to house the Institute was officially opened. This
is now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity,
Grahamstown. Smith's son is the renowned South African television
science and mathematics teacher William Smith.
J.L.B. Smith: his life, work, bibliography and list of new species.
Grahamstown: Department of Ichthyology, Rhodes University. 1969.
Smith, J.L.B. (1956). The search beneath the sea – The story of the
coelacanth. New York: Holt.
^ 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.
^ a b J.L.B. Smith: his life and work. Grahamstown: Rhodes
^ a b "Smith, James Leonard Brierley". Standard Encyclopaedia of
Southern Africa. 10. Nasou Limited. 1971. pp. 10–11.
^ Clymer, Eleanor (1966). Search for a Living Fossil. Scholastic.
^ Cotter, Jarrod Flying Fishcart article Fly Past magazine February
^ Weinberg, Samantha (19 December 2008). "Curse of the fish that time
forgot: Believed to be extinct for 65 million years – it returned
with chilling consequences". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 2 May
^ Pote, Jean (1997). "Historical highlights: the JLB Smith Institute
Ichthyology and the Department of
Ichthyology and Fisheries
Science, 1946–1996" In: The JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology: 50
years of Ichthyology, PH Skelton & JRE Luteharms (eds.).
Grahamstown: JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology. p. 6.
Smith's communications upon discovery of the Coelacanth
ISNI: 0000 0001 1023 7667
BNF: cb123268439 (data)