Charles Alexander Fleming was born in Auckland on 9 September 1916. He was the eldest of three children of Winifred Hardy and her husband, George Herbert Fleming. George had inherited a substantial private income from a great-uncle, and the family grew up in Remuera in very comfortable circumstances. Charles attended Remuera School, and then transferred to King’s Preparatory School. At King’s College (1930–33), latterly as a boarder, his interest in natural history was encouraged by Leonard Delph, a teacher. Charles mainly studied arts subjects, but participated in rugby, gymnastics, boxing, athletics and music (he played piano and organ).
At home he was surrounded by books, particularly on natural history, and when he developed an interest in shell collecting he was given copies of the two major reference books then available. He also became fascinated by birds, and while still at primary school kept detailed diaries of his observations. It was to be a lifelong interest.
George Fleming was a member of the Auckland Institute and Museum and Charles was able to attend some of their lectures. He also met A. W. B. Powell, who had been appointed conchologist at the Auckland Museum in 1929 and who set about establishing an Auckland Museum Conchology Club. Charles became a foundation member and thus came into contact with a remarkable group of museum staff: the director, Gilbert Archey, Powell, ornithologist R. A. Falla and botanist Lucy Cranwell, all of whom were to become major scientists.
Fleming was fortunate in being able to participate in a series of major collecting expeditions at an early age. He accompanied Powell on a collecting trip to the Whanganui area in 1931 to collect Tertiary fossil shells, and in 1933 on a major expedition to the Chatham Islands. Then in February 1934 he was able to join an Auckland Museum field trip on the Will Watch to the Three Kings Islands, as cabin boy. The members of this expedition included J. A. Bartrum (a geologist), W. R. B. Oliver (an eminent ornithologist, botanist and student of Mollusca), Falla and Powell.
The experience gained on this expedition influenced Fleming to enter university a year earlier than planned. He enrolled at Auckland University College soon after his return and, apparently as a result of parental pressure, studied at first for an arts degree, majoring in Latin and English but including some science subjects. During this period he was a member of the University Field Club, which stimulated interest in exploring the geology and natural history of New Zealand through regular lectures and tramping and camping visits. Its activities brought like people together and over the years many long-lasting friendships developed; it was here that Charles met his future wife, Margaret Alison Chambers, usually known as Peg.
Fleming completed his BA in 1937, then proceeded to work for a BSc, majoring in geology and zoology; he graduated in 1940. 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. His MSc thesis in zoology was a specialist study of the whale birds of the genus Pachyptila. The material he used was largely based on regular collections of dead specimens from Auckland’s west coast beaches. Peg Chambers became involved in this work with him, taking a supportive role which was to continue through the long years of their partnership. Fleming completed his MSc 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.
As the result of a strong recommendation from Bartrum, his professor of geology, Fleming applied for a position on the staff of the Geological Survey Branch of the DSIR, preferably as a palaeontologist, but he had to accept the designation of assistant geologist. He commenced work on 30 November 1940, assisting in the mapping of the Dannevirke subdivision.
On 12 April 1941 Charles and Peg were married in Auckland; they were to raise three daughters. Around this time the New Zealand government decided to establish coast-watching stations on the subantarctic Auckland Islands and Campbell Island to check for hostile shipping. Fleming was asked to join the venture, code-named the ‘Cape Expedition’, for a 12-month period, and accepted. He left Wellington by sea on 25 February 1942 to be based at Carnley Harbour on Auckland Island. 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. There was little contact with home except by radio; during his absence his first daughter was born and his father died in Auckland.
After his return from the Auckland Islands, Fleming found that his official designation had been changed to assistant palaeontologist and that he was to be involved in a series of investigations of projects which could result in economic returns. In 1945 he commenced a three-year-long investigation of the iron-sand deposits in the Whanganui area, together with a general geological survey of the district. Such activities were considered necessary for the public good and were officially decreed the equivalent of war service. The Whanganui survey culminated in an outstanding Geological Survey bulletin, which was published in 1953.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.
Fleming’s personal financial situation gave him marked advantages. He did not have to seek promotion into the higher-paid scientific administrative field and was thus able to retain an active research role. He was also able to finance regular overseas visits to attend scientific meetings and to study research material in various institutions. He normally secluded himself at home in the evening until about 10 p.m. working on his personal scientific interests. A year seldom passed without at least one paper on birds being published, some of them of marked significance. 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). During his time on council strong pressures began to mount for major changes in the structure of the society, which had altered very little since its formation as the New Zealand Institute in 1867. A number of very different views surfaced, and the resolution of these conflicts was largely due to a long series of discussions which Fleming orchestrated; the result was a new governing act for the society in 1965. As president for one more year and as home secretary for an additional two years, Fleming was able to assist the society to operate satisfactorily under the new framework.
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. As his contribution to the Ferdinand von Hochstetter centenary, he extended his knowledge of German sufficiently to produce, in 1959, an English-language version of this distinguished geologist’s book on the geology of New Zealand – all in his spare time. A mammoth task was the production of Science, settlers and scholars , a history of the Royal Society of New Zealand, which was published only shortly before he died.
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. In all these areas his wide-ranging scientific background, his first-hand knowledge of many isolated areas, and his ability to express himself clearly on paper and in addressing meetings made him an accomplished advocate.
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.
Charles Fleming died at Wellington on 11 September 1987, survived by his wife and daughters. His ability to cross interdisciplinary boundaries and to communicate his findings well beyond the scientific community, together with his industrious research and publication record, had made him a leading scientific figure for nearly half a century. A memorial to him stands at the Waimeha lagoon in Waikanae, and he is commemorated in the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement.