I came across the following sentence in a book: “The folks inside were from Florida, and their voices brought up memories in him like nets filled with coelacanths.”

Not only did I not know what a coelacanth was, I was clueless as how to pronounce it.

The pronunciation turned out to be easy: SEE-luh-kanth.

The definition, too, was simple: It’s a variety of fish that lived 65 million years ago. Fossils show that it had arm-like structures with fins instead of hands. Long extinct, there wouldn’t be any caught in nets.

Or would there?

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was born in South Africa in 1907. She arrived two months early and as a result was weak and sickly as a child. Despite her frailty, Courtenay-Latimer developed a love for the natural world and at a young age began to collect and study specimens of all sorts.

In 1931 at age 24, she applied for the job of curator at a museum in South Africa. Not a likely candidate, having had no formal training for the position, she bowled over the interviewers with her extensive knowledge of South African nature. She was hired.

Seven years later, as curator for the museum, Courtenay-Latimer would regularly check with local fishermen in case they came across anything unusual. Three days before Christmas, 1938, she received a call that the trawler Nerine had come into port, so she went to the docks to see if there was anything interesting in their catch. There was, indeed. It was the most beautiful fish she’d ever seen.

“It was five feet long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots,” she said. “It had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail.”

She had no idea what it was. Today, of course, she would simply snap a picture with her cell phone and do an Internet search. In her day, things weren’t so simple. She drew a sketch of the creature and included it in a letter to a professor she knew, J.L.B. Smith.

When he read Courtenay-Latimer’s letter and saw her sketch, Professor Smith was stunned. “A bomb seemed to burst in my brain,” he said. “I told myself sternly not to be a fool, but there was something about that sketch that seized on my imagination and told me that this was something very far beyond the usual run of fishes in our seas.”

Courtenay-Latimer had a taxidermist preserve the fish. When Smith made it to the museum and saw the specimen, he instantly knew what it was.

“I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth,” Smith would write in his 1956 book, Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth.

Excitement over the find swept the globe, and Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the self-taught woman who had talked her way into a job at a museum, became world famous.

Other coelacanths have since been caught, confirming their existence.


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