Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Windber, Somerset County
Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus at Colby College, Fleming examined the history of meteorology in many of his works.
Awards: Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the American Meteorological Society
Born in 1949 in Windber, Somerset County, James (Jim) Rodger Fleming became a premier name in the fields of historical meteorology and interdisciplinary climate research. As the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at Colby College in Maine, Fleming wrote important books on the history of meteorology, climate science, and the tropical atmosphere; published numerous edited volumes and articles; and contributed to public policy deliberations involving contested issues such as climate engineering.
James (Jim) Rodger Fleming was born on May 28, 1949, in Windber, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the son of James T. and Ellen J. Fleming. His father was a precision machinist at U.S. Steel during World War II and subsequently an insurance agent, tree farmer, and nurseryman. His mother was a registered nurse who also had multiple sclerosis. The family, including Jim and his older sister Betty Jane, moved to Elton, Cambria County, when he was five. At the time, there were no paved roads extending for thirty miles from the Flemings’ backyard to Blue Knob, a mountain in neighboring Bedford County. The streams, fields, and valleys of that region were a wooded playground for Fleming and other neighborhood children. The dark, rural skies also encouraged amateur astronomy and he acquired telescopes and an SLR camera at a young age. He attended Adams-Summerhill High School, which became Forest Hills High School during his senior year.
Fleming was proficient in both the Humanities and Sciences, but his astronomy hobby and growing up during the Space Age motivated him to study Astronomy at Penn State's University Park campus. During his senior year, he took advanced courses in Earth Sciences and Meteorology, studying with noted atmospheric scientists John Dutton and Hans Panofsky. He earned a Bachelor of Science in 1971, and with the offer of a research assistantship, he traveled west to earn a Master of Science degree in Atmospheric Science from Colorado State University. His thesis, supervised by Steven Cox, examined the radiative effects of cirrus clouds in the tropical atmosphere. After graduating in 1973, Fleming began his professional career as a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where he flew in a glider to investigate cumulus clouds. His next job was with the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington, where he joined a research group studying cloud seeding techniques. This involved extensive flying, often during winter storms. It was not a sustainable job in the long term.
Fleming continued to be interested in connections between the Humanities and Sciences and how both could inform human understanding. In 1974 he joined the Unification Movement, now the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. He left the University of Washington, opened a private consulting practice in forensic meteorology, and attended Unification Theological Seminary in New York, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree in 1982. That same year, he married Miyoko Yamato, from Yamaguchi, Japan, whom he met in New York. The couple had two children, Jamitto and Jason.
Seeing the History of Science as an opportunity to pursue his many interests, Fleming returned to graduate school at Princeton University, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in History in 1984 and a Ph.D. in History in 1988 under the supervision of Charles Gillispie. At the same time, the American Meteorological Society recruited him to serve as its first historical consultant (1986-1988). Explaining his interdisciplinary interests, he wrote “Climate is bigger than any single journal, book or even disciplinary approach. Its history draws in part on the histories of particular sciences such as astronomy, chemistry, computer science, geography, geology, meteorology, paleontology and physics; and in part from much broader historical currents” (Fleming, “Climate, Change, History,” 584).
Following his doctoral degree, Colby College appointed Fleming as Assistant Professor and Director of its new Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program. The program flourished, offering an interdisciplinary major as well as a “minor for all majors” for any interested student. He spent thirty-three years at Colby, punctuated by sabbatical leaves and other temporary appointments at MIT, Harvard, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Columbia University, and other institutions.
Fleming has authored several books on the history of meteorology and climate change. The first was Meteorology in America, 1800-1870, his dissertation research, published in 1990 by the Johns Hopkins University Press. In it, he details both the early stages of the science of meteorology, as well as the methods by which everyday people recorded the weather and climate. Reviewer Sally Gregory Kohlstedt noted that “no one [had] provided a comprehensive account” of this history before and found that Fleming’s work provided “a first-order mapping of the prominent players and institutions whose science eluded the predictability of laboratory techniques” (267-268). His second book, Historical Perspectives onClimate Change (Oxford University Press, 1998), "addressed our concern over global warming, which has led to a rapid expansion in the literature on climate change” by focusing on history, which had not been thoroughly addressed (Fleming personal interview). Another work, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia University Press, 2010), wove stories from elite science, cutting-edge technology, and popular culture, revealing how proposed technological fixes for killer hurricanes, ozone depletion, and global warming have fueled climate engineering fantasies of today. It won two major awards: the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, and the Louis J. Battan Author’s Award from the American Meteorological Society.
Fleming has also contributed significantly to biographical studies of important meteorologists. For example, The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898–1964), the Scientist Who Established the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change (American Meteorological Society, 2007) was the first biography of a remarkable scientist who linked three key elements of global warming: rising temperatures, rising levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, and infrared sky radiation. Like Fleming’s other works, this one was “well-written and especially well-documented" according to at least one reviewer (Charlson 254). Fleming also authored Inventing Atmospheric Science: Bjerknes, Rossby,Wexler, and the Foundations of Modern Meteorology (MIT Press, 2016), which charted the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of atmospheric science through the lives and careers of three key figures: Vilhelm Bjerknes, Carl-Gustaf Rossby, and Harry Wexler. Reviewer Linda Richter praised the book’s “wide array of new sources from private and public archives” and “apt storytelling” which offered a “treasure chest of insights into the lives of three leading meteorologists of the twentieth century” (653-654). Fleming’s First Woman: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere (Oxford University Press, 2020) was a comprehensive biography of the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology.
In addition to these works, Fleming edited, co-edited, or contributed to various other scholarly efforts. He served as the history editor for EOS: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union (1990-1996) and for the Bulletin of the AmericanMeteorological Society (2010-2021). He has been editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology (2010-). He was the founder and first president of the International Commission on History of Meteorology and edited its journal, History of Meteorology, from 2001 to 2017. In terms of work outside the academic realm, Fleming contributed substantially to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report on Climate Engineering. Other notable publications were Earth Observations from Space (National Research Council, 2008) and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth (National Research Council, 2015), which sought to inform the public about the legal, political, and social consequences of albedo modification. Fleming has appeared in dozens of speaking and media engagements, an important one being his 2009 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, in which he advocated the importance of historical studies toward understanding climate change and the potential impacts of environmental interventions.
Fleming earned numerous accolades over the course of his career. In 2003, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “pioneering studies on the history of meteorology and climate change and for the advancement of historical work within meteorological societies” (“Pioneering Studies” 29). Within the AAAS, he was also elected Chair of the History and Philosophy of Science section (2006-2009), Chair of the Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering section (2013-2016), and member of AAAS Council (2018-2020). He was an elected Fellow of the American Meteorological Society (2011) and winner of the Eduard Brückner Prize administered by the Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht für Material- und Küstenforschung (2015). He remains known in Pennsylvania as well. For example, he has occasionally taught courses within Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Some of his family members remain in Cambria County, and Forest Hills High School named him a distinguished alumnus in 2018.
In his retirement, Fleming enjoys fishing, jazz music, barbeque, his grandchildren, seeing students flourish, building the community of historians of the geosciences, and connecting the history of science and technology with public policy. He remains an important advocate of historical studies within a field that typically focuses on current situations and future projections. His motto is “Everything is unprecedented if you don't study history" (“Jim Fleming” 53).
Meteorology in America, 1800-1870. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
International Bibliography of Meteorology: From the Beginning of Printing to 1889. Editor with Roy E. Goodman. Upland, PA: Diane, 1994.
Science, Technology and the Environment: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Editor with Henry A. Gemery. Akron: University of Akron Press, 1994.
Historical Essays on Meteorology: 1919-1995. Editor. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1996.
Historical Perspectives on Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Weathering the Storm: Sverre Petterssen, the D-Day Forecast and the Rise of Modern Meteorology. Editor. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2001.
Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate. Editor with Vladimir Jankovic and Deborah R. Coen. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications/USA, 2006.
The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964), the Scientist Who Established the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change. Boston: American Meteorology Society, 2007.
Globalizing Polar Science: Reconsidering the International Polar and Geophysical Years. Editor with Roger D. Launius and David H. DeVorkin. New York: Palgrave, 2010.
Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Toxic Airs: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective. Editor with Ann Johnson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.
Inventing Atmospheric Science: Bjerknes, Rossby, Wexler, and the Foundations of Modern Meteorology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.
First Woman: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Fleming, James R. “My Bio in PA Center for the Book.” Received by Bernadette A. Lear, 4 Aug. 2022.
Fleming, James R. Personal interview. 8 Aug. 2022.
Fleming, James R., and Amy A. Lyons. “The Minor for All Majors: STS and the Liberal Arts at Colby College.” Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, vol. 18, no. 6, 1998, pp. 458-459. https://doi.org/10.1177/02704676980180060.
Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. Review of Meteorology in America, 1800-1870, by James Rodger Fleming. Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 12, no. 2, 1992, pp. 266-268. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3124168.
Richter, Linda. Review of Inventing Atmospheric Science: Bjerknes, Rossby, Wexler, and the Foundations of Modern Meteorology, by James R. Fleming. British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 48, no. 4, 2016, pp. 652-654. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087416001291.
United States, Government Accountability Office, Center for Science, Technology, and Engineering. Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directions, and Potential Responses. https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-11-71.pdf. Accessed 7 Aug. 2022.