Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fleming, John (1785-1857)

FLEMING, JOHN, D.D. (1785–1857), naturalist, son of Alexander Fleming, was born near Bathgate in Linlithgowshire 10 Jan. 1785. Moved by the strong wishes of his mother, he studied for the ministry, but he discovered at an early age an intense love of nature and natural science, which he took all opportunities, in harmony with other duties, to cultivate. Being asked by Sir John Sinclair to make a mineralogical survey of the northern isles, he became acquainted with the ministers of Shetland, and on the occurrence of a vacancy in the parish of Bressay, the right of presentation to which fell, jure devoluto, to the presbytery, he was nominated by them, with consent of the people, to the charge (licensed 22 April 1806, called 6 Aug. and ordained 22 Sept. 1808). His ‘Economical Mineralogy of the Orkney and Zetland Islands’ was published in 1807. A paper ‘On the Narwal or Sea-Unicorn’ was communicated at the same time to the Wernerian Society. In 1810 he was translated to Flisk in Fifeshire, a neighbouring parish to Kilmeny, where Dr. Chalmers was minister. Many papers on local natural history and cognate topics were written for the learned societies, and Fleming soon became known as the first zoologist in Scotland. On 16 May 1814 the degree of D.D. was conferred on him by the university of St. Andrews. In 1822 he published the ‘Philosophy of Zoology.’ To remedy certain difficulties of classification in Cuvier's method, Fleming advocated the dichotomous or binary method, a proposal which Cuvier did not approve, and for which Fleming had to fight stoutly against other antagonists. The book attracted much interest from many quarters in consequence of the attention devoted by the writer to the characters of animals. It was translated into Italian by Signor Zandrini, and was for many years a standard work among Italian savants. In 1828 the publication of ‘British Animals’ added yet more to his fame as a naturalist. The number of genera and species described was much in advance of previous catalogues. Buckland's ‘Reliquiæ Diluvianæ’ (1823) led to the publication of a pamphlet ‘On the Geological Deluge as interpreted by Baron Cuvier and Professor Buckland,’ which is said to have caused the suppression of a new edition of Buckland's work. Fleming's connection and correspondence with scientific men widened as the years went on, and he was in request for articles in the ‘Quarterly’ and a series of volumes, which, however, did not appear, for Murray's ‘Family Library.’ His total contributions to science in books, journals, &c., amounted to 129.

While zealous for science, Fleming was active and earnest in parochial duties; a proof of this was that on the occurrence of a vacancy in the neighbouring church of Auchtermuchty, a petition signed by four hundred parishioners (virtually all) was presented to the patron in his favour; but he did not receive the appointment. In 1832 he was presented by Lord Dundas to the parish of Clackmannan. In 1834 he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the University and King's College, Aberdeen. A petition from 418 inhabitants of Clackmannan was presented to him asking him to remain, but he elected to go to Aberdeen. Although his chair was connected with a different branch of science, he continued to prosecute his old pursuits. The old red sandstone engaged a large share of his attention, and its fossils were the subject of several papers contributed to the scientific journals. But many other departments of natural science likewise engaged his attention and his pen.

From the nature of his pursuits Fleming had been little implicated in the discussions going on in the church and the country with reference to patronage. But he had always been in favour of the popular side. When the disruption occurred in 1843 he joined the free church. Sir David Brewster [q. v.] had done the same at St. Andrews, where the presbytery of the established church took steps with the intention of compelling him to conform to the church or to resign his office in the university. Fleming had every reason to believe that a similar course would be taken with reference to himself. Ultimately he agreed to accept a chair of natural science which Dr. Chalmers and others had deemed it desirable to establish in connection with the Free Church College at Edinburgh. His appointment to this chair in 1845 enabled him to devote his whole heart and time to the subjects with which he was most conversant. In undertaking to conduct such a class, mainly for divinity students, he acted on the conviction that a right knowledge of nature was fitted to be of great use to all engaged in pastoral duty; and that there was need at the present time of special steps to defend the Christian faith from what he regarded as theories ‘resting on foundations that it would take a powerful lens to discover.’ During his tenure of this chair, besides writing as usual for the scientific journals, he sent several important contributions to the ‘North British Review,’ started by his friend and colleague, Dr. Welsh; he published a popular work, ‘The Temperature of the Seasons’ (1851), forming the second volume of a series called ‘The Christian Athenæum,’ and he prepared for publication his latest work, published after his death, ‘The Lithology of Edinburgh’ (Edinburgh, 1859).

Fleming had a vein of sarcasm which he allowed to operate somewhat freely, and a way of hitting opponents which could not be very agreeable. But the genuine kindness and honesty of the man came to be appreciated even by those whom, like Buckland, he had once somewhat alienated. He died, after a short illness, on 18 Nov. 1857.

[Scott's Fasti, iv. 494, 697, v. 424; Fleming's Lithology of Edinburgh, with a Memoir by the Rev. John Duns; personal knowledge.]

W. G. B.