Tale of boffins be­hind coela­canth find

Daily Dispatch - - News - MADELEINE CHAPUT MadeleineC@dis­patch.co.za

A fas­ci­na­tion with the story of the coela­canth’s dis­cov­ery prompted East Lon­don-born au­thor, Mike Bru­ton to write about the sci­en­tists be­hind the fish’s tale in his new book ti­tled The Fishy Smiths: A bi­og­ra­phy of JLB & Mar­garet Smith.

The book, pub­lished by Penguin Ran­dom House, will be launched at the East Lon­don Mu­seum on Satur­day and is the first com­pre­hen­sive bi­og­ra­phy about the cou­ple, chron­i­cling not only their ca­reers as nat­u­ral sci­en­tists, but also their per­sonal lives.

“I wanted to write a book about real peo­ple, some­thing warts and all.

“Both JLB and Mar­garet were re­mark­able and went on to make one of the great­est sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies in the world, but they were not per­fect, they both had their short­com­ings, and I think that once you re­alise that peo­ple have their flaws, you come to ap­pre­ci­ate their achieve­ments so much more,” said Bru­ton, who knew both Smiths and worked closely with Mar­garet for 20 years be­fore suc­ceed­ing her as di­rec­tor of the JLB Smith In­sti­tute of Ichthy­ol­ogy – now the South African In­sti­tute for Aquatic Bio­di­ver­sity – in Makhanda (Gra­ham­stown).

“This is also the 80th an­niver­sary of the dis­cov­ery of the first coela­canth by Mar­jorie Courte­nay-La­timer, so I wanted to bring the story up-to-date and make it read­able for those that are not spe­cial­ists or sci­en­tists,” he said.

Spend­ing two years writ­ing the de­tailed and colour­ful bi­og­ra­phy, Bru­ton gath­ered in­for­ma­tion from ar­chives, sur­veys, in­ter­views with friends and fam­ily of the Smiths and pop­u­lar ar­ti­cles in an ef­fort to re­veal sto­ries from both JLB and Mar­garet’s child­hoods, adult and mar­ried lives, as well as de­tails of JLB’s ad­ven­tur­ous sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions.

“There is quite a bit writ­ten on JLB, but not much on Mar­garet and noth­ing that re­veals sto­ries of their child­hood and suc­cess of their part­ner­ship.

“At first, Mar­garet had no in­ten­tion of be­com­ing a nat­u­ral sci­en­tist, but she learned the skills that JLB needed to com­ple­ment his work.

“They were two op­po­sites, JLB a frail, bit­ter man and Mar­garet, friendly and vi­brant, but they were mar­ried for 30 years and their part­ner­ship was stronger than the two in­di­vid­u­als on their own,” said Bru­ton, who de­scribes the Smiths as the “ar­che­typal yinyang cou­ple” in his book.

Now re­tired, Bru­ton lives in Cape Town, but has fond child­hood mem­o­ries of the EL Mu­seum where his in­ter­est in the coela­canth and sci­ence started.

“This is where the story of the coela­canth started. It’s a fa­mous lit­tle mu­seum and it needs to stay on the map,” said Bru­ton.

The book launch is at 3pm at the EL Mu­seum’s Courte­nay-La­timer Hall. Bru­ton will give a talk, and read­ings from the book.


IN­SIDE LOOK: EL-born au­thor Mike Bru­ton is back in his home town to launch his new book, ti­tled ‘The Fishy Smiths: A Bi­og­ra­phy of JLB & Mar­garet Smith’.

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