Friday, December 13, 2019

The Fishy Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton

When I was small, my mother (a retired schoolteacher) taught me a great deal about the coelacanth and its discovery, and why it was such an important find. All right, I was a bit obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils in general, so this living fossil that's survived not one but FOUR extinction-level events, is quite a Big Deal. So obviously I jumped at the opportunity to read The Fish Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton.

I'd hazard to say that the husband-and-wife team of JLB and Margaret Smith is nearly as remarkable as Old Four Legs himself. This pair of ichthyologists not only did groundbreaking work in describing the coelacanth but were also instrumental in establishing ichthyology in South Africa.

To say that JLB was a driven man is an understatement. Although he started his career in chemistry, his passion for the taxonomy of fishes, and indeed fishing, led him away from his position as chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and took him in another direction entirely.

Margaret was initially set on becoming a medical doctor, but gave all that up when she met and married JLB. She aligned herself with his interests and set herself up as the consummate research assistant and partner – complementing JLB perfectly. Together the pair achieved much more than many scientists could on their own.

They are perhaps also known for the book The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, which JLB authored and Margaret painted many of the illustrations. This book was considered one of the most comprehensive guides of its time.

JLB himself was a complex man, and most certainly a product of his era – some of his stances on race and politics wouldn't wash in this day and age. However his contribution to the field of ichthyology is undisputed. (Even if he advocated the use of dynamite or poison while collecting his samples!)

Author Mike Bruton writes a compelling biography for JLB and Margaret, giving us a vivid, detailed and warts-and-all account of the lives of these two remarkable individuals. The Fishy Smiths should be of interest to anyone who is fascinated with our natural heritage. I was particularly in awe of Margaret, that she so aligned with her husband's cause and in the end made it her own. I'm not certain I could ever be so accommodating! This book serves as an inspiration to individual excellence.

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