The history of systematic ichthyology in South Africa


The history of systematic ichthyology in South Africa Today we take it for granted that SAIAB is known worldwide for its research on fish systematics. But how did it acquire this reputation and who was responsible for it? The answer is hidden in a coincidence of events (e.g. the story of the coelacanth) and determined people (e.g. JLB and Margaret Smith) that also happened to be at the right place at the right time.

My research objective is to understand and explain how the interaction between events, scientists and society enabled the development of systematic ichthyology to its current strength. While my own interest is the marine fish aspect of the discipline, Paul Skelton has a similar interest in the history freshwater ichthyology. Naturally, our mutual interest resulted in a collaborative project on the history of SAIAB’s fish collection. I then went on to produce a Master's thesis in 2003 on the history of marine fish systematics in South Africa. Fortunately, the archive at SAIAB is a gold mine of fascinating historical documents that I’m still slowly researching as time allows.

Gerry Allen, Margaret Smith and Jack Randall, around 1978
The JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in 1999