Mary Margaret Smith: Ichthyologist, Artist, and First Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology
A version of this post was originally published on the blog of the Margaret Smith Library, SAIAB. It is reproduced with permission from the author, Sally Schramm.
The Library at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity is named for Mary Margaret Smith (née Macdonald), the first Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology. Macdonald attended Rhodes University College in Grahamstown from 1934 to 1937. She was awarded her B.Sc. degree in 1936, majoring in physics and chemistry (with distinction), and became a senior demonstrator in the Chemistry Department.
James Leonard Brierley (JLB) Smith (1897-1968), Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry, and Mary Macdonald, were married in 1938. With her not liking the new name “Mary Smith”, she was from that time always known as “Margaret Smith”.
JLB Smith, a keen angler, developed a more formal interest in ichthyology, the study of fishes. His young wife soon became involved in his hobby and accompanied him on fishing trips and collecting expeditions.
In 1946, the Department of Ichthyology was established at Rhodes University and J.L.B and Margaret Smith were able to devote all their energies to the production of an authoritative book on the sea fishes of southern Africa.
One of their greatest problems was a lack of suitable illustrations. Undaunted, despite no artistic training, Margaret Smith, took on the task. The first edition of The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, published in 1949, contained her exceptional illustrations.
She in turn taught what was to become a group of acclaimed natural history artists.
After the death of JLB Smith in January 1968, Margaret Smith continued her ichthyological research in Grahamstown. At the end of 1968, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Rhodes University decided to establish the J.L.B Smith Institute of Ichthyology. Margaret was appointed the first Director of the new Institute, now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB).
The Margaret Smith House, a women’s residence at Rhodes University, likewise honours her contribution to our local university and to international science.
Margaret Smith died in 1987. She had given 49 years of service to ichthyology.
Margaret’s achievements, the fine building, the reference collection of fish which she so adequately preserved, the status of the institute as a museum of international standing, are there for all to see. What is less known is the woman herself in her private life which few could know much about. This may be summed up in two words: for all her public flamboyance, she was a kind woman. Nobody with a hard-luck story was ever turned away … she helped innumerable people. If something was needed and could not otherwise be got she would dip into her pockets, and never say a word. 
The Biodiversity Heritage Library holds a collection of JBL Smith’s Ichthyological Papers, edited by his wife, Margaret Smith, and published in 1969, the year after his death. Contributed by the Library of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, the two volume work was published by the J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology.
One of the highlights of the publication is the description of the “re-discovery” of the coelacanth, believed to have become extinct in the Late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago, but rediscovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum, discovered a specimen from amongst the catch of a local trawler, Captain Hendrick Goosen, and contacted J.L.B. Smith regarding the discovery. Smith subsequently named the species Latimeria chalumnae after Courtenay-Latimer.