John Adam Fleming (1877–1956)

John Adam Fleming was born on January 28, 1877, and his training was not unusual for that early stage in geophysics. He never attended graduate school, but he did obtain a B.S. at the University of Cincinnati, in civil engineering. He began his transition to geophysics with his first position with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1899, working under Louis Agricola Bauer in the newly created Division of Terrestrial Magnetism. His first assignments involved the design and construction of geomagnetic observatories for the Survey in Alaska, Hawaii, and Maryland. In 1904, Bauer founded the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) at the new Carnegie Institution of Washington. Fleming worked simultaneously there and at the Survey for several years. At the Carnegie Institution he designed new magnetic instruments, established the instrument shop, and participated in magnetic surveys in Central America and elsewhere. Fleming was successively Chief Magnetician, Chief of the Observatory Division, Chief of the Magnetic Survey Division, and ultimately Director of the DTM from 1935 to 1946. In fact, Fleming gradually assumed the latter role beginning in the early 1920s, when Bauer’s health began a steady decline.

According to Merle Tuve, who succeeded Fleming as DTM Director, Fleming had “unusual gifts” for administration. Fleming not only directed the DTM’s activities, he also edited five volumes of the DTM’s publications and the journal Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity (now the Journal of Geophysical Research). He edited the volume Terrestrial Magnetism and Electricity (1939) in the National Academy of Sciences’ series “Physics of the Earth.” He encouraged Sydney Chapman and Julius Bartels in the classic work Geomagnetism (1940) by providing them with several years of support at the DTM. Through all of these publications and his organizational activities, Fleming nurtured and shaped the discipline of geophysics. He was one of the most important individuals in establishing geophysics in twentieth-century America.

Fleming also published over 100 scientific articles, being especially interested in the problem of secular variation. He received numerous awards and honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences (1940), the American Geophysical Union’s William Bowie Medal (1941), the Chree Medal of the Physical Society (London), and the posthumous creation of the Fleming Medal by AGU. Fleming died on July 29, 1956.

—Gregory A. Good

West Virginia University

Morgantown, West Virginia