Famous scientist spent childhood in Mowbray

Left: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer in the 1930s.

The world-famous museum scientist, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, spent part of her childhood in Mowbray.

Marjorie was born in East London on February 24 1907 but travelled with her father, Eric, and mother, Willie, on the SS Norman Castle to Cape Town in March 1907. They lived in a rented cottage in Mowbray, near the Groote Schuur Estate, until 1910.

Her life and work have recently been chronicled by Rondebosch author, Mike Bruton, in Curator and Crusader. The Life and Work of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer (Footprint Press, June 2019).

Marjorie’s adventurous life began in Mowbray in April 1907 when her mother returned home to find her in the garden with her stepsister, Mavis, with a “huge cat” pacing up and down the property fence. As Eric Latimer recorded in his dairy on April 29 1907, “Shortly after this, the keepers came hurrying along – said they were cleaning the cages (of the nearby zoo on the slopes of Devil’s Peak) when the tiger had escaped and that it was a savage brute and a danger to the public”.

Marjorie’s love of nature, which would eventually propel her into the international spotlight as a pioneering naturalist and conservationist, was first nurtured in Cape Town.

Eric Latimer records that, at the age of seven months, she was carried up Table Mountain in a backpack, and, in January 1908 “she ran away from me today gurgling with laughter. I tore after her, she ran off into some scrub at
the foot of Lion’s Head and
came back with her hands full
of ‘pity’ (pretty) flowers. She is speaking quite clearly and loves flowers”.

In February 1908 the family spent the day at Cape Agulhas.

“Margie was thrilled with the beach and fell in love with a special shell which she played with all day.”

In later years, she would make one of the most comprehensive sea-shell collections in South Africa.

Marjorie’s father eventually became a South African Railways station master and his family would live in 26 different remote locations in the Eastern Cape and Free State during her childhood and early adulthood.

At each location, Marjorie, her mother and five sisters explored the local environs and made collections of cultural and natural history objects.

When the new East London Museum was opened in 1931, Marjorie, at the tender age of 24, was appointed as the first director. She would serve in this position for 42 years, developing her museum in to a world-class facility.

The collections that the family had made during their forays into the wilds of South Africa formed the basis for the new museum’s natural and cultural history collections.

Marjorie’s links with Cape Town continued throughout her career. In 1937, she spent several months at the then-South African Museum, at the invitation of the director
Dr Leonard Gill, participating in bird research and learning display and taxidermy techniques.

Dr Gill’s book, A First Guide to South African Birds (1936), was a great inspiration to her, and she and Dr Gill did some of the first bird ringing in South Africa.

In August 1939, Marjorie travelled to Cape Town by train with the precious first coelacanth specimen, which she had saved for science after it had been caught by an Irvin & Johnson trawler off East London in December 1938.

“When we got to Cape Town, all the flags were flying. I thought it was to greet the coelacanth, so I waved as we drove through the streets. I later found out that there was an important foreign visitor in town.”

The fish was mounted by the acclaimed taxidermist at the South African Museum, James Drury.

In December 1939, Marjorie wrote to JLB Smith, “Latimeria has arrived back from Cape Town (is) looking really wonderful. Drury has done marvels one could hardly recognise the tattered specimen I took him in August.”

The living coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, was named after Marjorie by Rhodes University ichthyologist, Professor JLB Smith, as was the family of living coelacanthid fishes, the Latimeriidae.

A new species of snail, Gulella latimerae, and a new species of flowering plant, Lachenalia latimerae, were also named after her, as were two new subspecies of birds.

Later in life, Marjorie would receive many awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University and the Freedom of the City of East London. And it all started on the slopes of Table Mountain.