John Fleming (naturalist)

Rev Prof John Fleming DD FRSE FRS FSA (10 January 1785 – 18 November 1857) was a Scottish 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%27s grave, Dean Cemetery
Prof John Fleming's grave, Dean Cemetery


He was born on Kirkroads Farm near Bathgate in Linlithgowshire, the son of Alexander Fleming and his wife Catherine Nimmo.[1]

After his studies at the University of Edinburgh were completed in 1805, the following year he became a pastor in the Church of Scotland and was assigned to the parish of Bressay in Scotland. He was ordained in 1808. From 1808 in 1834 he served in various parishes in Scotland. In 1808, he participated in founding the Wernerian Society, a learned society devoted to the study of natural history.

John Fleming joined the Royal Society on 25 February 1813. In 1814, he became a doctor of theology at the University of St. Andrews and in the same year he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 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).

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 at the University of Aberdeen's King's College in 1834. In 1845, he became professor of natural history in New College, Edinburgh.

He died at home, Seagrove House in Leith[2] 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 publications

  • 1821: Insecta in Supplement to the fourth, fifth and sixth editions of the Encyclopae-dia Britannica, with preliminary dissertations on the history of the sciences
  • 1822: Philosophy of Zoology
  • 1828: A History of British animals, exhibiting the descriptive characters and systematical arrangement of the genera and species of quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, fishes, mollusca, and radiata of the United Kingdom, including the indigenous, extirpated , and extinct kinds, together with periodical and occasional visitants Edinburgh: i–xxiii + 1–565.
  • 1851: The Temperature of the Seasons, and Its Influence on Inorganic Objects, and on Plants and Animals

Partial list of described taxa

Species in the phylum Mollusca described by Fleming:

  • Chiton laevigatus Fleming 1813
  • Patella elongata Fleming 1813
  • Patella elliptica Fleming 1813
  • Doris nigricans Fleming 1820
  • Heterofusus retroversus Fleming 1823
  • Octopus octopodia (Linné 1758 : Sepia) Fleming, 1826
  • Bulla cranchii Fleming 1828
  • Eolidia plumosa Fleming 1828
  • Modiola vulgaris Fleming 1828
  • Lima fragilis Gmelin 1791 sensu Fleming, 1828
  • Lutraria vulgaris Fleming 1828
  • Gastrochaena hians Fleming 1828
  • Patella clealandi Fleming 1828
  • Assiminea grayana Fleming 1828
  • Scissurella crispata Fleming 1828


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1857
  3. ^ IPNI.  Fleming.

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