Margaret Smith was an ichthyologist, painter, musician, museologist and an academic. She illustrated the book Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, which was written by her husband Prof James Leonard Brierley Smith
Margaret Smith was born Margaret Mary MacDonald on 26 September 1916 in Indwe, a small village in the former Transkei. [i] Her father, Chisholm MacDonald, who was born in New Zealand, was a Medical Doctor. Her mother, Helen Evelyn Zondagh, was a descendant of the Voortekker leader Jacobus Johannes Uys. Margaret was the youngest of their three children. [ii]
Margaret attended Indwe High School, where she became head girl. She excelled in academics, sports and music. In 1933 she won eight medals at the Wodehouse Eisteddfod. These medals were for singing, playing the violin and writing.
From 1934 to 1936, she attended Rhodes University College (now Rhodes University) in Grahamstown, where she achieved a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in physics and chemistry. She passed this degree summa cum laude. In that same year she was awarded a University Teacher’s Licentiate in Music by the University of South Africa (UNISA). [iii]
In 1937 she became a senior demonstrator in chemistry at Rhodes University. From there on she tutored physics and chemistry at the university, and in 1945 she taught physics at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. [iv]
On 14 April 1938 she married James Leonard Brierley Smith in Florida, in the former Transvaal.
J.L.B Smith had been her senior lecturer in Organic Chemistry at Rhodes University. He had a keen interest in ichthyology and in 1939 he was the leading authority on South African Marine Fisheries. While accompanying her husband on his fishing trips and collecting expeditions, which were mainly in the western, southern and eastern coasts of Africa, Margaret developed an interest in ichthyology.
Eight months after their wedding, her husband, J.L.B Smith, who by this time was an Honorary Curator for the East London Museum, was tasked to study the living coelacanth, which he named Latimeria Chalumnae. This became one of the outstanding finds of the twentieth century. The couple worked together in this project with Margaret, using her talent for drawing to do illustrations and paintings for their manuscript. They submitted their manuscript to the press four days before the birth of their son, William Smith, and in 1942 their book Sea Fishes of Southern Africa was published. Margaret drew 685 of the 1320 illustrations in the book, which received worldwide acclaim and has since been revised five times. [v]
When the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) funded the establishment of the Department of Ichthyology at Rhodes University in 1946, Margaret Smith was appointed as the Scientific Associate of the department. She occupied this position until 1968. [vi]
After the death of her husband, J.L.B Smith, on 7 January 1968, Margaret Smith continued with her ithchyological work in Grahamstown. The contribution of J.L.B. and Margaret Smith for their study of ichthyology was acknowledged by the CSIR who established the J.L.B Smith Institute of Ichthyology in their honour. Margaret was appointed director of the institute and from 1968 to 1982 she served on the Senate and Faculty of Science at Rhodes University College. [vii]
This accomplished academic also received two silver medals from the South African Angling Union, in 1977 and 1980 respectively. It was in 1980 that she was also granted a merit award by PRISA, the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. In that same year, she was appointed associate professor at Rhodes University, which was followed by a full professorship in 1981. In April 1980 the institute was expanded into a National Museum. Just two years later, on 30 April 1982, Margaret Smith retired as the director of the institution. [viii]
During her retirement, in 1987, Margaret Smith received the Order for Meritorious Service, Class 1(Gold) from the State President, P. W. Botha and an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University. [ix]
[i] Brotom, M 1989, Cybium, Muse´um national d'histoire naturelle, Paris. ↵
[ii] Lutjeharms, E 1997,The J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology: 50 years of ichthyology
J.L.B, Smith Institute of Ichthyology in collaboration with Royal Society of South Africa; Cape Town.↵
[iv] Rhodes University n.d., Biography of Margaret Smith,
https://www.ru.ac.za/desmondtutu/ourresidences/margaretsmithhouse/biographyofmargretsmith/ Date accessed: 13 January 2016, ↵
[v] Ibid. ↵
[vi] Ibid. ↵
• Lutjeharms, E 1997,The J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology: 50 years of ichthyology.
• J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology in collaboration with Royal Society of South Africa; Cape Town.
• Margaret M. Smith, & Phillip C (ed.) 1986, Smiths’ Sea Fishes. CPT book Printers, Cape Town.
• Rhodes University n.d., Biography of Margaret Smith, (Date accessed) 13 January 2016, from https://www.ru.ac.za/desmondtutu/ourresidences/margaretsmithhouse/biographyofmargretsmith/.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.