Flett, John Smith

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Flett, John Smith

(b. Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland, 26 June 1869; d. Ashdon, Essex, England, 26 January 1947)

geology, petrology.

Educated at the Burgh School, Kirkwall, and George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, Flett entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of seventeen. His academic career, of which he left an account (published posthumously), was one of remarkable promise. He read first for the arts degree, and the classics left him with a lifelong love of Horace, Catullus, and Lucretius; the other subjects in the course were mathematics, physics, metaphysics, moral philosophy, English, and political economy. Having graduated M.A. at nineteen, Flett proceeded to the B.Sc. in natural sciences and followed this with the medical degrees M.B. and C.M. in 1894.

After practicing medicine for a short time, Flett returned to the University of Edinburgh to become assistant to the professor of geology, James Geikie, and subsequently was promoted to a lectureship in petrology. His earliest researches were on the stratigraphy and petrology of the rocks of his homeland; this work was accepted for the D.Sc. in 1899. His five years as petrologist at Edinburgh gave Flett a sure grasp of the subject and a growing reputation, especially as a result of his studies of the monchiquitecamptonite suite of minor intrusions.

In 1910 Flett jointed the Geological Survey of Great Britain, succeeding Sir Jethro Teall as petrographer and quickly attaining district geologist status. In 1911 he returned to Edinburgh as assistant director in charge of the Geological Survey in Scotland. He became director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1921, occupying this position with great distinction until his retirement in 1935. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1913 and was created a Knight of the Order of the British Empire in 1925.

Flett’s scientific achievements, in addition to his work on Orkney, include important contributions to the geology of Cornwall, especially his work on the sediments, metamorphic rocks, and igneous masses of the Lizard and adjacent areas. That some revision of the dating of the ancient sediments was needed as a result of the work of E. M. Hendriks does not detract from his basic work. Flett’s joint study with C. E. Tilley of the unusual cordierite-anthophyllite rocks of the aureole of the Land’s End granite is significant in metamorphic petrology, but he is remembered more generally for the formulation, with Henry Dewey, of the spilite suite, a worldwide type characteristic of early geosynclinal history. As Survey petrographer, Flett’s work ranged widely over the richly varied rocks of the British Isles and is recorded in contributions to thirty-six issues of the Survey’s Memoirs, covering areas as separated as Caithness and Meneage (1902–1947). Abroad, his best-known work arose from a Royal Society expedition to St. Vincent after the eruption of Soufrière in 1902; Tempest Anderson was his collaborator.

After 1911 Flett’s energies turned to administration, and it was his powerful leadership that left its mark on science. Some of the Geological Survey’s best work was done under him, such as the completion of the highly detailed mapping of the Tertiary volcanoes and the revision of the major coalfields. More than this, it was Flett’s determination that brought to fruition the move of the Museum of Practical Geology (now called the Geological Museum) from its Victorian site behind Piccadilly to the present splendid building in South Kensington.

Flett became increasingly deaf, but there were those who believed that his success as an administrator was due to his hearing only those proposals according with his own wishes.


I. Original Works. A full list of Flett’s writings is given in the Royal Society obituary notice cited below. Among them are “The Old Red Sandstone of the Orkneys,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 39 (1898) 383–424; The Trap Dykes of the Orkneys,” ibid., 39 (1900) 865–918; “Report on the Eruption of Soufrière in St. Vincent in 1902, and on a Visit to Montague pélée, in Martinique,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 200A (1903) 353–553, written with T. Anderson; “On Some British Pillow-Lavas and the Rocks Associated With Them,” in Geological Magazine, 5th ser., 8 (1911), 202–209, 241–248, written with H. Dewey; “Hornfelses from Kenidjack, Cornwall,” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey. Summary of Progress for 1929 (1930), 24–41, written with C. E. Tilley; “Geology of Lizard and Meneage (Explanation of Sheet 359),” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1912, 2nd ed. [by Flett], 1946), written with J. B. Hill; The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1937); and “Memories of an Edinburg Student, 1886–1894,” in University of Edinburgh Journal, 15 (1950) 160–182.

II Secondary Literature. See E. B. Bailey, Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1952), passim; and H. H. Read, “John Smith Flett, 1869–1947,” in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 5 (1948), 689–696.

K. C. Dunham