Ecology Sir Arthur Tansley
Laura J. Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0094


Arthur George Tansley (b. 1871–d. 1955) was one of the most eminent ecologists of the 20th century and was key to the discipline’s professionalization. Knighted in 1950, Sir Arthur was known to friends as “A. G.” His networking acumen led to the creation of pathbreaking institutions, such as the world’s first ecological organization, the British Ecological Society (BES; founded 1913) and the Nature Conservancy (founded 1949) of which he was the first chairman. He served as the first president of the BES and, in addition to editing the New Phytologist, a journal he founded in 1902, he acted as editor of the BES’s Journal of Ecology from 1917 to 1938. Tansley’s deepening interest in psychoanalysis during World War I led him to write a highly regarded bestseller entitled The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life and he became an important popularizer of Freudian psychoanalysis. He resigned his Cambridge lectureship in order to pursue his professional interest in psychology though he continued to research and publish on ecological matters. In 1927, Tansley accepted the Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. Besides completing in 1939 his magnum opus, The British Islands and Their Vegetation, he would continue to write for many audiences: most notably, educating students on the active study of ecology and urging the wider public to conserve Britain’s landscapes. Tansley, often described as a mixture of idealist and materialist, was a lucid contributor to debates on ecological and psychological terminology. In 1935, he introduced what would become one of his science’s most fundamental and influential terms, the “ecosystem.” Godwin 1977 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries) relates that Tansley, when asked to name the person who “would prove to have had the most lasting influence upon the world, unhesitatingly chose Freud.”

General Overviews

Besides Ayres 2012 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries), there is a dearth of comprehensive studies of Tansley’s life and work. Rather, Tansley features in a range of contextual overviews with different emphases, all scholarly and accessible. McIntosh 1985 is an informed introduction to Tansley in a broad history of ecological science. Sheail 1987 relates his key role in the creation of the British Ecological Society; Bocking 1997 gives a portrait of his scientific and political work on behalf of the Nature Conservancy. Boney 1991 illuminates Tansley’s struggle to reform the university botany curriculum. Hagen 1992 and Golley 1993 (cited under Correspondence) provide contrasting narratives on the history of the “ecosystem” concept, a term introduced by Tansley. Forrester and Cameron 2017 and Cameron and Forrester 2000 detail his relationship to Freud and trace his psychoanalytical networks. Anker 2001 gives Tansley a leading role in the establishment of ecology as a powerful tool in the making of the British Empire’s social order.

  • Anker, Peder. 2001. Imperial ecology: Environmental order in the British Empire, 1895–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A volume that is well grounded in the social studies of science. Tansley figures as one of a handful of select British imperialists, characterized as a mechanist in tension with the idealist and ultimately racist ecology of South African ecologists inspired by Jan Smuts.

  • Bocking, Stephen. 1997. Ecologists and environmental politics: A history of contemporary ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Part 1 focuses on Great Britain and the origins of the Nature Conservancy.

  • Boney, Arthur. 1991. The “Tansley Manifesto” affair. New Phytologist 118:3–21.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.1991.tb00561.x

    A thorough examination of the milieu in which suggested curriculum reform was labeled “Botanical Bolshevism.”

  • Cameron, Laura, and John Forrester. 2000. Tansley’s psychoanalytic network: An episode out of the early history of psychoanalysis in England. Psychoanalysis and History 2.2: 189–256.

    DOI: 10.3366/pah.2000.2.2.189

    Psychoanalytical networks made up of eminent scientists formed around Tansley ranging from philosopher Frank Ramsey to the geophysicist Harold Jeffreys.

  • Forrester, John, and Laura Cameron. 2017. Freud in Cambridge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139020862

    Containing a detailed account of the influence of a dream on the course of his life, Tansley emerges as a key instigator when a wave of psychoanalytic enthusiasm hits Cambridge in the 1910s and 1920s.

  • Hagen, Joel. 1992. An entangled bank: The origins of ecosystem ecology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Tansley’s proposal to refer to plant communities as “ecosystems” rather than as “organisms” is contextualized here in relation to the concept’s reception and development in American ecology.

  • McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. The background of ecology: Concept and theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511608537

    Wide-ranging and critical guide to the emergence of ecology as a science.

  • Sheail, John. 1987. Seventy-five years in ecology: The British Ecological Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Useful institutional history. Tansley’s place at the forefront of terrestrial plant ecology is highlighted along with his founding role in the British Ecological Society.

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