Tale of boffins behind coelacanth find
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’.