Charles Fleming excelled across the spectrum of natural sciences. His selective collecting of shells and birds, and his discoveries in geology and ecology, made him one of New Zealand's last old school naturalists.
In Whanganui, his fieldwork brought groundbreaking understanding of how to interpret our region's geology.
Throughout this period, the trustees of the Wanganui Public Museum made museum facilities available for Fleming for drawing and recording, and for sorting and packing specimens.
The honorary director James Grant and curator George Shepherd took a keen interest in the survey and assisted the work in many ways.
Fleming brought international attention to the value of local fossil beds as evidence of extensive and repeated climate change over the past five million years.
Fleming's legacy extends beyond research and academic publications.
He became an important activist for conservation and the environment at a crucial time when our country was developing philosophically.
In addition to a knighthood, he was honoured for his work by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and the Royal Society of New Zealand, which struck a medal in his memory.
The Geology of Wanganui Subdivision is Fleming's outstanding contribution to geology.
His painstaking and insightful fieldwork, backed with meticulous research, built a three dimensional understanding of the strata of this region.
With the coast and inland valleys sliced open, figuratively, it took some reading, but the rewards were stunning.
It is now recognised as perhaps the most complete record of the past five million years of climate change anywhere on the planet.
Steady, gentle uplift of the land has preserved a record of sea-level rise and fall caused by the relentless sequence of ice ages.
Fleming used washed-up seabirds to gather important data on their populations. He used these specimens in his MSc thesis.
Fleming would not have shot them for collections as had been the practice a generation earlier. He later donated these specimens to Whanganui Regional Museum.
Fleming kept working as a research associate for the New Zealand Geological Survey long after retiring from his fulltime role as the chief palaeontologist. His last publication added species that had not been described before to his already impressive list.
After his long and distinguished scientific career, Fleming was asked to write an editorial for the New Zealand Listener in 1969. He wrote these words:
We have lived at the best time, with modern medicine and transport, able to enjoy New Zealand before it loses the flavour we love … to form balanced judgements about our
future environment we must cease being technologists and economists and become philosophers, not afraid to look at the total picture.
Celebrating his life and service to environmental science, the Charles Fleming Medal is awarded, along with a cash prize, once every three years by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
It honours those who, "have achieved distinction in the protection, maintenance, management, improvement or understanding of the environment, in particular the sustainable management of the New Zealand environment".
•Keith Beautrais is a scientist, teacher and conservationist who advises, researches with and writes occasionally for the Whanganui Regional Museum.