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The Coelacanth: Act Three

Keith Thomson

Act One: Enter Latimeria, Stage Right

Act One opened in the South African port of East London on December 22, 1938. As almost everyone knows, there were two principal players. Marjorie Courtenay Latimer (curator of the East London Museum) picked out the fish from a pile that had been saved for her by the men of the trawler Nerine and taken from the bay of the Chalumna River, just to the south. James Leonard Brierly Smith was an eccentric chemist-cum-ichthyologist from what was then Rhodes University College in Grahamstown. Smith identified this strange blue fish despite the inherent absurdity of it all—a living member of a group that had previously been known only from fossils, of which the most recent was some 70 million years old. Even more improbably, he hadn't even seen the fish itself, just a sketch that Miss Latimer sent him. But he was right, and thereafter the story of the coelacanth has always been larger than life—chance events, interesting characters, challenges to orthodoxy.

Act One continued with Smith's search for more specimens, mostly through a poster made up in three languages that he distributed along the whole coast. Persistence was one of Smith's virtues, and eventually it paid off, thanks to another flamboyant character.

Figure 1. CoelacanthClick to Enlarge Image

Eric Hunt ran the trading schooner N'duwaro between the mainland and the islands of the western Indian Ocean, including the Comores. Hunt had taken a batch of Smith's posters to the Comores after meeting Mrs. Smith in a Zanzibar market late in 1952. It was Hunt to whom, just a few weeks later, word came of the capture of a big strange fish from Anjouan Island. He telegraphed Smith, who had to enlist the help of the South African prime minister for an Air Force plane in which to swoop down on the Comores to collect the specimen, now in rather sad shape. Luckily, after all this effort, it really was a coelacanth, although Smith foolishly tried to convince the world that it was a new genus and species. Glory for Smith? The beginning of a whole new era for him? Not at all.

Although Hunt and Smith had been cheerfully supported by M. Pierre Coudert, Comoran Chef du Territoire, there was "no joy in Mudville" (Paris, that is). The Comores were French territory, and quite understandably national pride and scientific honor were at stake. It soon turned out that the fish was well enough known to some Comoro islanders for there to be a local name for it—ngombessa. Smith had been right. However Act One ends not with Smith as the leading man, but instead with Professors Jacques Millot, an arachnologist, and Jean Anthony, an anthropologist, from Paris.

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