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Essex Field Club
Essex Field Club
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Noteworthy naturalist

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John Smith Flett (1869-1947) Geologist

Sir John Smith Flett (1869-1947), geologist, was born on 25th May 1869 at Kirkwall, Orkney. He died on 26th January 1947 in the garden of his home, The Cottage, 24 May Hill, Ashdon, Essex. Sir John Flett was buried in the cemetery attached to All Saints’ Church, Ashdon. He was deaf and often blunt in his pursuit of good science. Flett was an “imposing, forceful man, a fluent and immensely knowledgeable speaker” (Sabine 2004). He studied in Edinburgh and later worked in London.

Flett was the second son of James Ferguson Flett, a merchant and magistrate and Mary Ann Copland. John Flett married Mary Jane Meason (1871-1950). Her sister married Edward B. Bailey (1881-1965) who was Director of the Geological Survey 1937-1945 following Flett’s retirement in 1935. Flett and his wife had two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Sir Martin Teall Flett (1911-1982) was presumably named after Sir Jethro Teall (1849-1924), who was Director of the Geological Survey 1901-1914.

Flett qualified as a medic and briefly practised medicine before increasing deafness made him switch to geology. He obtained his D.Sc for his work on the igneous rocks of Orkney. His main interest was petrology and he became petrographer to the Survey in 1901 and contributed to thirty Survey Memoirs particularly those for Scotland and south-west England. In 1911 Flett was promoted to be Assistant Director of the Geological Survey for Scotland, becoming Director of the Geological Survey and Museum in London in 1920. He masterminded the move of the survey headquarters and museum from Piccadilly to South Kensington. The new museum was based on the latest ideas in museums and opened in 1935. The regional geology of Great Britain was displayed and explained in the new museum. Accompanying regional geological handbooks were published. Following his retirement in 1935 Flett wrote the definitive history of the first 100 years of the Geological Survey which was published in 1937. A second edition of his Geology of the Lizard and Menage was in the press when he died. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913 and knighted in 1925. Following his retirement Flett moved to Ashdon, Essex where he died in his garden in January 1947. His grey granite tombstone is in the shadow of All Saints’ church tower with the following epitaph “He richly enlarged man’s knowledge of the earth”. His wife is buried in the same plot and her epitaph reads “She was lovely in all her ways”.

Flett, Sir John Smith. 1937. The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. 280 pages.

Who’s Who 2008 and Who Was Who on line.

Peter A. Sabine. 2004. Sir John Smith Flett (1869-1947). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Photograph by Herbert Hughes. Plate 9 page 177 in Flett 1937.

Wealth at death £3,756

Account provided by Mr William George
page last edited on Thu Jun 12th 2008 by site user 68