Herbert John Fleure

Home Archives & Manuscripts Obituaries Herbert John Fleure

Professor H. J. Fleure, D.Sc., Ll.D., M.A., F.S.A., F.R.S. 1877-1969

Professor Fleure died at his home in Surrey at the advanced age of 92 on 1 July 1969. He was a former President and life-long friend and supporter of the Institute. He came from his native Guernsey to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1897, and graduated with First Class Honours in zoology in 1900. His zoological training was to colour his thinking for the rest of his life. He has confessed to an interest in attempting to understand Darwinian evolutionary concepts from his schooldays. He quickly realised that older forms of thinking had been shattered by the works of men like Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley, and he felt a yearning to restate the case for the essential unity of the universe in post-Darwinian language. This led naturally to his interest in zoology and later in physical anthropology.

After graduating at Aberystwyth these interests were furthered by a period of research work at the University of Zurich, where he came under the influence of Arnold Lang in zoology and Rudolf Martin in physical anthropology. On his return to Aberystwyth he lectured in zoology, geology and botany, becoming professor of zoology in 1910. In 1917 friends of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, endowed a special Chair for Professor Fleure which became known as the Gregynog Chair of Geography and Anthropology. It is significant that this Chair, the only one of its kind in Britain, carried the double title of Geography and Anthropology. To Professor Fleure, as to Charles Darwin, man, like other living organisms, was a part of nature, and living organisms and their environment are inseparable and must be studied together—hence the combination of geography and anthropology.

As early as 1907 he had published an important paper (in association with the late Professor T. Campbell James) in Man. It was a preliminary report on the progress of the University of Wales Ethnographical Survey. A statement on this subject had already been made to Section H (Anthropology) of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at their Leicester meeting in the same year. As time went on, Professor Fleure became a very frequent contributor to Man, publishing twenty articles on various subjects, and contributing ninety-one reviews of anthropological works between 1907 and 1955. He also addressed the Anthropological Section of the British Association on eight separate occasions at their annual gatherings. In 1916, (again jointly with Professor T. Campbell James), there appeared an epoch making paper in the Institute’s Journal entitled The geographical distribution of anthropological types in Wales. The paper attracted great attention at the time, and, in fact, continues to do so, as some of its interesting conclusions have recently been confirmed by modern blood-group evidence. Fleure followed this, his first paper in the Journal, by eight other papers over the years, his last contribution (written jointly with Dr Elwyn Davies) appeared as recently as 1958, and is concerned, interestingly enough, with exactly the same topic (now greatly amplified and brought up to date) entitled Physical characters among Welshmen. Meanwhile, he had written several extremely important works on physical anthropology and contributed to a wide range of scientific journals both in Britain and abroad. Among his important books may be mentioned The peoples of Europe (1922), The races of England and Wales (1923), The corridors of time (10 volumes from 1927 onwards, written jointly with another distinguished member of the Institute, the late H. J. E. Peake), The races of mankind (1927), The characters of the human skin in their relation to questions of race and health (1927), and, finally, a most attractive and well-illustrated volume entitled A natural history of man in Britain (1951).

n October 1930, Fleure left Aberystwyth to become the first Professor of Geography at the Victoria University of Manchester. This move was accompanied by no great change in his ideas or general teaching programme. It is possible, however, that with a larger staff, he himself inclined more and more towards the teaching of physical anthropology, archaeology and prehistory. It was during this period that he delivered the Huxley Memorial Lecture. Likewise, he carried to Manchester his strong advocacy of world unity, peaceful co-existence and international understanding, at a time when the problems arising from events connected with the second world war and the Nazi conception of race superiority made it extremely difficult to present ideas of this nature. He remained in Manchester until his retirement from active university work in 1944. Then began the third period of his life—that of his active retirement in London. During this period, in 1946-47 he was President of the Institute, and it was characteristic of the man that he kept on working and writing for various journals to the end. It should be recalled that Geography, Man, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute benefited greatly from his writings at this period. Fleure’s services to geography and anthropology did not go unrecognised during his lifetime. He occupied the Presidency of many learned bodies besides our own, while universities and learned societies all over the world were eager to honour him. In 1924 he was President of the Cambrian Archaeological Association as well as of the Anthropological Section of the British Association. In 1932 he became President of its geographical section. He was Chairman of the Folklore Society and the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, while in 1948 he became Chairman of the National Committee for Geography and President of the Geographical Association. Later, he was elected a permanent Vice-President of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, a Commandeur de l’ordre de Leopold (Belgium), and in 1965 was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. The greatest honour bestowed upon him, however, was his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1936, of which he was justly proud. The Universities of Wales and Edinburgh andBowdoin College in the United States, conferred honorary degrees upon him. He received the Research and Gold Medals of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the C. P. Daly Medal of the American Geographical Society, the Huxley Medal of our Institute and the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Behind this imposing list of offices, attainments, contributions and honours that came his way, there lay something to those who knew him, that was even more important still—Fleure the man. He was the most unselfish of men—always ready to impart his wealth of knowledge not only to university students, teachers and learned societies throughout the land, but also to small groups of ordinary folk who fore-gathered among the hills of Wales or the mills of Lancashire. Herein lay the secret of his remarkably widespread influence and the love and admiration he won from his students and from a wide circle of friends and scholars throughout the land. The Royal Anthropological Institute looks back with pride to be able to include him not only among its Medallists and Past-Presidents, but also among its most distinguished contributors to the vast store of anthropological knowledge gathered within the pages of Man and its well-known Journal.

E. G. Bowen

This obituary first appeared as: Bowen, E. G.. 1969. ‘Obituaries’. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1969, p. 97-99 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

BOWEN, E. G.. 1969. ‘Obituaries’. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1969, p. 97-99 (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/herbert-john-fleure).