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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fletcher, Joseph James (1850–1926)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Joseph James Fletcher (1850?-1926), biologist and editor, was probably born at Auckland, New Zealand, eldest son of English parents Rev. Joseph Horner Fletcher, Methodist clergyman, and his wife Kate, née Green. He arrived in Australia with his parents in 1861 and was educated at Ipswich Grammar School, Queensland, Newington College, Sydney, where his father was president, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1870; M.A., 1876). He taught briefly at Wesley College, Melbourne, where he developed an interest in natural science. As no science degree was offered in Australia, from 1876 he studied at the Royal School of Mines and University College, University of London (B.Sc., 1879). Specializing in biology, he studied for a time at Cambridge and in 1881 published his first paper.

From his return to Australia that year Fletcher taught at Newington until 1885; he introduced an elementary course of anatomy and physiology and was acting headmaster. He was one of the first to investigate closely the embryology of marsupialia; carrying out field work around Bathurst he published three papers in 1881-83 on the genito-urinary organs of the kangaroo, and in 1884 a paper in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, 'Catalogue of papers and works relating to the mammalian orders, marsupialia and monotremata'. He had joined the society in 1881, its council in 1883 and in January 1886, at the invitation of the society's founder (Sir) William Macleay, became librarian—as Macleay's executor he was later involved in the legal and financial difficulties arising from his will.

Director of the society from 1893, for thirty-three years Fletcher guided its affairs and meticulously edited its Proceedings from Elizabeth Bay House. He published thirty-eight important papers in the Proceedings, the majority on earthworms, land planarians, peripatus and the Amphibia, on which he was a world authority. In January 1900 he made a notable contribution to the history of natural science in Australia in his presidential address to the biology section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.

On his retirement as director in 1919 Fletcher turned his attention to the sandstone flora around Sydney, published on the phases of eucalyptus and acacia seedlings and intensively investigated the Proteaceae and Loranthaceae. He was president of the society in 1919-20 and 1921; in his first presidential address he stressed the scientific need to study drought; in his second he attacked the university over its trust in regard to the Macleay Museum. On the centenary of Macleay's birth in June 1920 he gave an important address, 'The Society's Heritage from the Macleays', which contained much of biographical, historical and zoological interest. He gave his own zoological collection to the Australian Museum, Sydney, of which he was an elected trustee. He also gave over 300 books and pamphlets to the Mitchell Library. In 1921 he was awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Fletcher was an original and successful teacher, dedicated scientist and, as editor, he was as modest and tactful as he was helpful. He relished field excursions, where according to Joseph Maiden he was 'a charming companion, always bright and full of clever wit'. His simple observations and lucid descriptions reminded Sir Baldwin Spencer of the famed Gilbert White of Selborne. Poetry, especially the poetry of nature, was one of his great loves. He died suddenly on 15 May 1926 at his home, Ravenscourt, Woolwich Road, Hunters Hill and was buried in the Methodist section of Field of Mars cemetery. Childless, he was survived by his wife Emma Jane, née Spencer, whom he married in the Newington College Chapel on 9 April 1884.

Select Bibliography

  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 45 (1920) 1, 46 (1921) 1, 52 (1927), v, xxiii, 54 (1929), 185, 686, 55 (1930), 738
  • Nature (London), 3 July 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 2 Apr 1921, 17, 18 May 1926
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 May 1926.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Fletcher, Joseph James (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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