Arthur Tansley: the founding father of ecology was an “honnête homme”


He was one of the most influential botanists of the twentieth century, establishing ecology as a field of research and finding the time to write key pieces on psychoanalysis. Meet Arthur George Tansley: scientist, intellectual and man of his time.


Sir Arthur George Tansley was a British botanist at the beginning of the 20th century. He is acknowledged as the pioneer of ecology, mainly because it was he who first coined the term “ecosystem”. However, his findings and influence go way beyond that, covering a large area from botanic research to social psychology and psychoanalysis. Born in 1871 and knighted in 1950, he is one of the founding fathers of ecology… and a perfect example of a concept dear to the Enlightenment philosophers – that of the “honnête homme”: a man whose curiosity knew no disciplinary limits.

“Inventing” the ecosystem

Tansley’s interest in botany was aroused early on during his studies at University College London and Trinity College, Cambridge. His very first contact with environmental studies came when he discovered the work of Danish botanist Eugenius Warming, in 1898. After reading Plantesamfund (translated into English as Oecology of Plants: An Introduction to the Study of Plant Communities, it was the first book to contain the word “ecology” in its title), he was inspired to

[go] out into the field to see how far one could match the plant communities Warming had described for Denmark in the English countryside.

Tansley thus began a journey that would lead him to found the New Phytologist (a publication that covers all aspects of plant science) in 1902, the “Central Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation” in 1904, the British Ecological Society in 1913 and the Journal of Ecology in 1917. He also led the first ever International Phytogeographic Excursion (IPE) in the British Isles in 1911 – the first of a series that would bring together botanists from all over the world and contribute to building international knowledge and methods. His research led him to publish a number of comprehensive works on Britain’s vegetation, and to become the first chairman of the British Nature Conservancy.In 1935, he established his presence as a thinker within his discipline when he published “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts” and coined the word “ecosystem”. Tansley’s aim was then to draw attention to the interactions between organisms and their environment, namely the transfer of materials. He defined the ecosystem as

the whole system, including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment.

He also insisted that, “Though the organisms may claim our prime interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally, we cannot separate them from their special environments, with which they form one physical system.”

A champion of psychoanalysis

By then, Arthur Tansley had already become a famous figure in botanical circles, both in Britain and abroad. His work had been very influential, identifying the need to make vegetational inventories and define ecological methods. As the New Physiologist puts it, “his principles of ecology – most notably the ecosystem – shaped the emergent science both in Britain and throughout the world”, also helping “popularise ecology among a wider public.” On the publication’s website, John Sheail, of the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology of Wallingford, also writes,

Tansley’s career encompassed the late-nineteenth century emergence of British ecology, its long, hesitant development, and ecology’s eventual recognition through the establishment of the Nature Conservancy in 1949.

But Tansley was not only a pioneer in biological and ecological science. The other love of his professional life was psychoanalysis, with which he became acquainted at the end of the 1910’s. In 1920, he published The New Psychology and its Relation to Life, in an endeavour to introduce the work of Sigmund Freud to a large audience. It was an immediate hit, and in order to deepen his knowledge, Tansley went to spend three months in Vienna with Freud, and even persuaded his family to move to Austria in 1923, resigning his post at Cambridge in the process. Freud himself subsequently wrote of him:

I find a charming man in him, a nice type of English scientist. It might be a gain to win him over to our science at the loss of botany.

In 1925, back in his home country, Tansley was elected to full membership of the British Psychoanalytic Society but, a year later, he chose botany over psychoanalysis by accepting the Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. Nevertheless, he never lost interest in psychoanalysis which, according to Peder Anker, historian of science at the University of Oslo, nurtured his philosophical approach to his science, “Tansley did not offer a psychoanalytic explanation for his ecological studies. However, he did believe that a complex matter like the human mind or society could be explained in terms of simple biological processes, which in turn are based on physical and chemical laws of energy. The transfer of psychological terminology into the realm of botany was based on this assumption.” Tansley, who once declared that Freud was the single most influential man since the birth of Christ, has marked the history of ecology with a rich, various and total vision of his science. The man who “strongly believed science should serve a social end”, as Anker writes, should remain an inspiration for today’s ecologists, faced with a crisis than Tansley could not possibly have foreseen.