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Fleming, Sir Charles (1916-1987)

Identifier: flec


  • Creation: 1939-1987
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1939 - 1987

Access and use

Access to this material is freely available within the J.C.Beaglehole Room for research and private study. Enquiries for use beyond this should be directed to the J.C.Beaglehole Room ( in the first instance.

Brief summary of Fleming's career

Geologist, ornithologist, conchologist, and conservationist, Sir Charles Fleming, was a senior government palaeontologist in the Geological Survey in the 1950s and 1960s and Historian of the Royal Society of NZ.

Biographical information

Fleming completed his BA in at Auckalnd University College in 1937, then studied for a BSc, majoring in geology and zoology... In the summer of 1937–38, together with Graham Turbott, he organised an ornithological expedition to the Chatham Islands. His first series of scientific papers, published in 1939 on the birds of the Chathams, remains a major contribution to knowledge of that area. ... Fleming completed his MSc in Zoology (a specialist study of the whale birds of the genus Pachyptila) in 1940 with equivalent first-class honours, and was awarded the Fowlds Memorial Prize as the most outstanding student of the year. That same year he was active in forming the Ornithological Society of New Zealand.

He began work as an assistant geologist with the Geological Survey Branch of the DSIR on 30 November 1940 and in early 1942 took up an opportunity to be involved in the establishment of coast-watching stations on the Auckland Islands. His year on this remote island gave him a chance to study its geology and natural history at first hand, and assisted the development of his ideas on biogeography.

From 1948 his professional working career was based in the Geological Survey in Wellington. He became chief palaeontologist in 1952. He published many scientific papers on living and fossil Mollusca and also a few on fossil crabs, barnacles and polychaete worms. He also compiled a major volume which included 1,753 drawings of fossil shells prepared by John Marwick and a complete checklist of all the known New Zealand Cenozoic fossil molluscs. Fleming contributed large sections to the text of the extensive volume of the Lexique stratigraphique international concerned with New Zealand, published in 1959.

In the 1950s Fleming formed part of a group of New Zealand scientists who were investigating the topography of New Zealand’s ocean floors, ocean currents, and the life in deeper water. The knowledge acquired gave additional stimulus to his studies on the origins of New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

....The varied songs of cicadas stimulated him to determine if analyses of the differences could be used in the classification of this group. In the 1960s this interest strengthened, and he published 12 papers on cicadas, several in conjunction with J. S. Dugdale.

Fleming was always a staunch supporter of the Royal Society of New Zealand. He served on several committees of its council, and then as a government representative on council (1954–62), vice president (1960–61), and for two terms as president (1962–64 and 1964–66). ... Fleming retired from the New Zealand Geological Survey in 1977. As a research associate, he was still able to use its facilities, and he was honorary lecturer in earth sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.

Fleming was always interested in the history of science and scientific institutions. He was often called on to prepare obituaries and bibliographies of distinguished scientists and published 25 of these from 1961 onwards. His book Science, settlers and scholars, a history of the Royal Society of New Zealand, was published shortly before his death in 1987.

With his lifelong interest in birds and nature, it is not surprising that Fleming became heavily involved in the conservation movement, especially from 1970. He supported the campaign to prevent Lake Manapouri being raised to provide for a hydroelectric power station. He served as a member of the Fauna Protection Advisory Council, the Environmental Council, the National Parks Authority of New Zealand (for 10 years from 1970), and as a trustee for the Nga Manu sanctuary, Waikanae. He was also deeply involved in the Native Forests Action Council.

Prizes and honours had descended on Charles Fleming since his school days. The Royal Society of New Zealand awarded him the Hamilton Memorial Prize (1943), its fellowship (1952), the Hutton Memorial Medal (1956), and the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize (1963). He was made an OBE in 1964 and KBE in 1977. He received a DSc from the University of New Zealand in 1952, an honorary DSc from Victoria University of Wellington (1967) and another from the University of Auckland in 1974. His most prestigious scientific award was his election as a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1967, an honour which has been given to few New Zealand scientists. He served on the councils of many New Zealand scientific societies and was elected to honorary life memberships of many overseas bodies....

For further information please see Te Ara's entry on Fleming at, from which the above information has been extracted.


33 linear_centimeters (1 Box)

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Citation held for Honorary Doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington, 1967, see Vice-Chancellor's archives finding aid.

Nicola Frean & Sue HIrst
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Repository Details

Part of the Tapuaka Heritage & Archive Collections - JC Beaglehole Reading Room, Victoria University of Wellington Library Repository

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