John Fleming (naturalist)

Rev Prof John Fleming DD FRSE FRS FSA (10 January 1785 – 18 November 1857) was a Scottish Free Church minister, naturalist, zoologist and geologist. He named and described a number of species of molluscs. During his life he tried to reconcile theology with science.

Prof John Fleming's grave, Dean Cemetery

Fleming Fjord in Greenland was named after him.[1]


He was born on Kirkroads Farm near Bathgate in Linlithgowshire, the son of Alexander Fleming and his wife Catherine Nimmo.[2]

After studying Divinity at the University of Edinburgh he graduated in 1805. He was licensed to preach by the Church of Scotland and ordained as minister of Bressay in the Shetland Islands in 1808. In 1810 he translated to the parish of Flisk in Fife and in 1832 translated to Clackmannan.[3]

In 1808, he participated in founding the Wernerian Society, a learned society devoted to the study of natural history.

John Fleming became a Member of the Royal Society of London on 25 February 1813 (he was not granted Fellowship). In 1814, he was awarded an honorary doctorate (Doctor of Divinity) by the University of St. Andrews and in the same year he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers for the latter were John Playfair, David Brewster and Robert Jameson.[4]

In 1824, he became involved in a famous controversy with the geologist William Buckland (1784–1856) about the nature of The Flood as described in the Bible.

Fleming was a close associate of Robert Edmond Grant, who considered that the same laws of life affected all organisms. In 1828, Fleming published his History of British Animals. This book addressed not only extant, but also fossil species. It explained the presence of fossils by climate change, suggesting that extinct species would have survived if weather conditions had been favorable. These theories contributed to the advancement of biogeography, and exerted some influence on Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Flemings' comments on instinct in his book Philosophy of Zoology had influenced Darwin.[5]

Fleming was a vitalist who was strongly opposed to materialism. He believed that a 'vital principle' was inherent in the embryo with the capacity of "developing in succession the destined plan of existence."[6]

In 1831, Fleming found some fossils which he recognized as fish in the Old Red Sandstone units at Fife. This did not fit the generally accepted notion that the Earth was approximately 6,000 years old.

He was awarded the chair of natural philosophy (Physics) at the University of Aberdeen's King's College in 1834. In the Disruption of 1843 he left the established Church of Scotland to join the Free Church. In 1845, he became professor of natural history at the Free Church's New College in Edinburgh. He was three times elected President of the Edinburgh Botanical Society (1847–48, 1849–50 and 1856–57).[7] He was then living at 22 Walker Street in Edinburgh's West End.[8]

He died at home, Seagrove House in Leith[9] and is buried with his family in the western half of Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. He is buried with his wife, Melville Christie (1796–1862) and son Dr Andrew Fleming (1821–1901) (also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) who rose to be Depute Surgeon General of the Indian Army.

Partial list of publicationsEdit

Partial list of described taxaEdit

Species in the phylum Mollusca described by Fleming:


  1. ^ "Catalogue of place names in northern East Greenland". Geological Survey of Denmark. Retrieved 12 August 2019.
  2. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  3. ^ Ewing, William Annals of the Free Church
  4. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  5. ^ Richards, Robert J. (1987). Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. University of Chicago Press. pp. 103-104. ISBN 0-226-71200-1
  6. ^ Corsi, Pietro. (1978). The Importance of French Transformist Ideas for the Second Volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology. The British Journal for the History of Science 11 (3) 221-244.
  7. ^ THE BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH 1836-1936 (PDF). p. 15. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 March 2017. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  8. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1850
  9. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1857
  10. ^ IPNI.  Fleming.

External linksEdit