Curator of the Natural History museum in East London, South Africa, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was the first person to discover (in a meaningful way) that the coelacanth wasn’t extinct, but was simply the vile-tasting “gombessa” that had been thrown away for decades.
While collecting specimens and samples for the East London museum, Ms. Latimer let it be known to the local fishermen that she was highly interested in any “unusual” or rare fish that they might haul aboard. In 1938, Capt. Henrik Goosen phoned her to come down to the dock, where she encountered a five-foot long oddity, which she describes:
“I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was five foot[feet] long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; 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 hauled it back to the museum in a taxi (which she notes the cabbie was none too happy about, even when she gave a generous tip - I can’t imagine any taxi driver wanting fish slime on their seats!), and discovered that she could not find the fish in any of the books available to her. She was eager to preserve the specimen, and since the museum had no preservation facilities, she (in another taxi) took it down to the morgue, which wouldn’t have it. She then attempted to contact James [JLB] Smith at Rhodes, but he was out on holiday.
In the end, knowing that it could possibly end up being of dubious scientific value, she reluctantly ended up having the fish skinned and taxidermied. Luckily, the external anatomy of the coelacanth is so different from anything else in the sea, JLB Smith was able to positively identify the specimen:
“There was not a shadow of a doubt,” he said. “It could have been one of those creatures of 200 million years ago come alive again.”
Still, the taxidermy work had removed both the gill plates and the ossicles, which were needed for absolute confirmation that this was the fish of fossils. Now known as Latimeria chalumnae after his friend and the river it was discovered in, the discovery was announced to much excitement in the scientific community and local population. The fact that there was no complete positive proof that this fish was the fish of fossils still made many icthyologists doubtful about the specimen, but JLB Smith was absolutely determined to find proof of its identity.
And thus began the search for the Lazarus fish…
The Search Beneath the Sea: The Story of the Coelacanth. J. L. B. Smith, 1956.