In This Article Peter Greig-Smith

  • Introduction
  • Holism and Reductionism in Ecology
  • The Legacy of Peter Greig-Smith

Ecology Peter Greig-Smith
Exequiel Ezcurra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0089


The postwar period, and especially the 1950s, saw a rising quest for a truly quantitative approach to community ecology. Community description to that point had been predominantly qualitative and had been based mostly on attempts to extend the principles of Linnaean taxonomy into the classification of multispecies sets. Four innovative ecologists directed their efforts to bring the principles of statistics and mathematics to vegetation analysis: John T. Curtis and Robert H. Whittaker in the United States, and David W. Goodall and Peter Greig-Smith in the United Kingdom. J. T. Curtis, in collaboration with J. Roger Bray, developed the first method of community ordination and also developed the idea of ecological dissimilarity or “ecological distance measure” that later opened the way to the concept of niche overlap. Robert H. Whittaker was the proponent of gradient analysis to address fundamental questions of how plants use space and resources. He provided foundational elements for a quantitative theory of biodiversity and was most active in the areas of plant community analysis, succession, and productivity. David Goodall worked as a professor of agricultural botany at the University of Reading, where he developed a series of studies on plant sampling, distribution, and multivariate analysis. In 1956, however, Goodall immigrated to Australia, where he led a sixty-year-long and extremely fruitful career, becoming one of the world’s most renowned ecologists. Peter Greig-Smith (b. 1922–d. 2003), eight years younger than Goodall, was the one in Britain to champion the quantitative approach in plant ecology.

Early Work

One of the founding fathers of quantitative plant ecology, Peter Greig-Smith had a deep influence on vegetation studies and plant ecology across the world, mostly from his book Quantitative Plant Ecology, first published in 1957 (and revised in 1964 and 1983), a must-read for generations of young ecologists. Greig-Smith went to school in Birmingham, United Kingdom, before going up to Downing College, Cambridge, where he was inspired by the teachings of Alexander S. Watt, the first British botanist to seriously study the phenomenon of pattern and scaling in plant communities from a quantitative perspective. Watt’s deep inspirational influence can be seen in Greig-Smith’s obituaries of him (Greig-Smith 1982, Greig-Smith 1990). In 1944, after graduating from Cambridge, he went to the Imperial College’s Field Station at Slough, where he studied the effect of herbicides on oilseed crops under the direction of the legendary Geoffrey E. Blackman, founder of the science of selective herbicides in Britain. The Slough herbicide tests, part of Britain’s war effort, involved the planting of large-scale experiments with random block and nested designs, an experience that played a central role in nurturing Greig-Smith’s interest in statistical methods and experimental plot designs. In 1945 he moved to the University of Manchester as lecturer in botany. At Manchester, he cultivated a wide array of research interests, ranging from the taxonomy of liverworts and stinging nettles, the causes of spatial pattern in dune plants, the quantitative morphology and tussock formation of Ammophila arenaria (a dune grass), and the biogeographic distribution of liverworts to understand the fate of vegetation in the British Isles during the last glaciation. In July 1948 he received a research grant from the Colonial Office to visit the island of Trinidad to study tropical rainforests. Encouraged by E. Ashby, an early pioneer of quantitative methods who was then professor of botany at Manchester, he left the university for six months to study secondary succession in Trinidad, in collaboration with colleagues of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture on the island. Like Darwin in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, he was fascinated and amazed by the complexity of tropical forests, and in order to try to unravel and explain this complexity, he developed for the first time some novel statistical methods to test hypotheses on the association between species and the spatial pattern of saplings and adult trees in the field. An avid naturalist, he also developed in Trinidad a passion for orchids, which led him later to start cultivating his own orchid collection in the United Kingdom.

  • Greig-Smith, Peter. 1982. A. S. Watt, F.R.S.: A biographical note. In The plant community as a working mechanism: Produced as a tribute to A. S. Watt. Edited by E. I. Newman, 9–10. Special Publication of the British Ecological Society 1. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific.

    E-mail Citation »

    Greig-Smith’s fondness and admiration for Alexander S. Watt, his first teacher and mentor, is patently recorded in the biographical note he authored for the publication of a book in tribute to Watt’s memory.

  • Greig-Smith, Peter. 1990. Alexander Stuart Watt: 21 June 1892–2 March 1985. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 35:404–423.

    DOI: 10.1098/rsbm.1990.0019E-mail Citation »

    After Watt’s death, the Royal Society selected Greig-Smith, his most renowned student, to write his biographical memoir.

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