Ecology Sir Arthur Tansley
Laura J. Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 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.

Biographies and Obituaries

Ayres 2012 capably fills a vacuum as the first book-length biography of Tansley. Tansley’s colleague and former student Harry Godwin wrote a series of intimate and authoritative memoirs in Godwin 1957 and Godwin 1977. Other former students, including John Hope-Simpson (Hope-Simpson 2004), and international contemporaries, such as William Cooper (Cooper 1957), paid tribute. Armstrong 1991 situates Tansley in the botanical and geographical tradition; Cameron 2008 highlights Tansley’s contributions to the new psychology as well as ecology.

Primary Works

Tansley’s major contributions include works in both Ecology and Psychology.


Although his specific studies on botanical and ecological subjects were published widely in scientific journals, including those he edited, the New Phytologist and the Journal of Ecology, Tansley had a particular talent for synthesis and clear expression. He wrote significant books for varied audiences that included fellow scientists, such as Tansley 1911 and Tansley 1965, but also promoted his vision for conservation among the wider public in Tansley 1945, Tansley 1952, and Tansley 1968. He worked to educate students in the study of botany and ecology in Tansley 1922, Tansley 1946, and Tansley 1952. He introduced the term “ecosystem” in the American journal Ecology (Tansley 1935).


Tansley long nursed a deep interest in psychology. A dream he had and analyzed himself during World War I spurred him to read the works of Freud and write what would be reprinted eleven times as one of the best introductions to the “new psychology” of his time (Tansley 1929). Leaving his lectureship in the Cambridge Botany School to study with Freud in Vienna, he contributed to psychological debates (Tansley 1922 and Tansley 1926) and would compose Freud’s obituary for the Royal Society (Tansley 1939). He found psychology relevant to his work for scientific freedom (Tansley 1952b) and his final work, Tansley 1952a, was an overarching synthesis of the two central preoccupations of his life. On connections between his psychology and ecology, see Ayres 2012 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries).


Tansley’s voluminous correspondence has gone largely unpublished. Exceptions include a letter from Sigmund Freud to Tansley (Forrester and Cameron 1999) and excerpts from Tansley’s correspondence with Frederic Clements (Golley 1993).

  • Forrester, John, and Laura Cameron. 1999. “A cure with a defect”: A previously unpublished letter by Freud concerning “Anna O.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 80:929–942.

    DOI: 10.1516/0020757991599160Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Addresses the text of a previously unpublished 1932 letter by Freud to Tansley concerning the treatment and later life of “Anna O.,” the first psychoanalytic patient.

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  • Golley, Frank Benjamin. 1993. A history of the ecosystem concept in ecology: More than a sum of the parts. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    A scientist’s perspective giving particular attention to Tansley’s reasoning in formulating the concept. The “Notes” (pp. 208–210) contain excerpts from correspondence between Tansley and Frederic Clements.

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Tansley collaborated on numerous studies and projects throughout his life. Notable among them are studies with his wife-to-be Edith Chick, for instance Chick and Tansley 1903. In 1903 they married and her independent scientific career ended. He joined with others (Blackman, et al. 1917) to advance curriculum reform. He produced many papers with younger colleagues on various ways vegetation is influenced by human and animal activities: Tansley and Adamson 1925, Godwin and Tansley 1929, and Tansley and Watt 1932. He also worked with the assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, to edit an influential book, Tansley and Chipp 1926, defining ecological methods for imperial management, and with a teacher to create a book (Tansley and Price Evans 1946) that would interest children in practical ecology.


Both of Tansley’s major works, The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life (Tansley 1929, cited under Psychology) and The British Islands and Their Vegetation (Tansley 1965, cited under Ecology), received generally admiring reviews from eminent commentators in several countries, including, in reference to the former, Hall 1922 and Jones 1920, and, to the latter, Salisbury 1939 and Olmsted 1939.


Tansley’s legacy remains vital. His classic paper “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” has been reprinted with commentary in Kingsolver and Paine 1991. A previously unpublished paper containing hints as to relations between his understanding of nature and the human mind appears for the first time in the journal Ecosystems with an introduction by Peder Anker (Anker 2002) and Tansley is featured in the film Curtis 2012. The Journal of Ecology honored Tansley’s enduring vision in its 2012 centenary issue, Hutchings, et al. 2012, keeping the memory of its founder alive with a highly informative website, the New Phytologist Trust. The British Ecological Society supports the Tansley Lecture in his name. In fields beyond ecology, the Network in Canadian History and Environment has given attention to his work as founder of the International Phytogeographical Excursion and Progress in Physical Geography has revisited his classic paper “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” (Trudgill 2007).

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