Arthur Tansley and the Plants of Britain

Ecology is now accepted as a scientific discipline in its own right, and there are professional ecologists. This is due in no small measure to the influence of another gifted teacher and writer, the English ecologist Arthur G. Tansley (1871–1955). Tansley always insisted on strict definitions, rigorous use of language, and learning about natural communities by studying the flow of energy and nutrients through them. He strongly opposed loose comparisons between plant and animal communities and human societies.

Tansley advised the student of ecology to begin by studying plant ecology. The fact that plants provide the basis for all terrestrial life makes it impossible to study animal ecology without referring to plants and, therefore, to plant ecology. Animals are relevant, of course, through their effects on plants, and so are humans. In his textbook Practical Plant Ecology, published in 1923 and in a revised and enlarged edition as Introduction to Plant Ecology in 1946, Tansley wrote the following:

Thus anything like a complete study of the ecology of a plant community necessarily includes a study of the animals living in or feeding upon it. The influence of man upon plant communities is of first importance in all but the most uninhabited and the most sparsely inhabited regions of the earth. . . . we can never afford to lose sight of past and present human activities in their effects on the vegetation of countries which have long been inhabited and densely populated, like those of Western and Central Europe.

Tansley introduced the term ecosystem in “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” an article published in the journal Ecology in 1935, but he did not coin the word. It was first used in 1930 by the British botanist Arthur Roy Clapham (1904–90) in response to an inquiry by Tansley, who had asked him to think of a word to describe the physical, chemical, and biological components of an environment when these are considered together. Tansley defined the term in Introduction to Plant Ecology, where he used biome in a different sense from the modern one, using it to describe “the whole complex of organisms—both animal and plants—naturally living together as a sociological unit,” and continued:

A wider conception still is to include with the biome all the physical and chemical factors of the biome’s environment or habitat—those factors which we have considered under the headings of climate and soil—as parts of one physical system, which we may call an ecosystem, because it is based on the oikos or home of a particular biome.

Arthur George Tansley was born in London on August 15, 1871. He attended Highgate School from 1886 until early 1889, when he entered University College London to study science. He studied botany at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, graduating in 1894. After graduating from Cambridge, he returned to University College as a demonstrator in botany and assistant to his former teacher, Francis Oliver (1864–1951).

Tansley spent the years 1900 and 1901 studying the plants of Egypt, Sri Lanka, and the Malay Peninsula. Following his return to Britain, in 1902 he founded The New Phytologist—phytology is the study of plants. He was editor of this journal from its first issue until 1931. In 1907 Tansley became a lecturer in botany at Cambridge, where he remained until 1923. He had grown interested in psychology, and in 1923 he resigned from Cambridge and spent a year in Vienna studying under Sigmund Freud. In 1927 Tansley was appointed Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford, where he remained until he retired in 1939.

Tansley was the first president of the British Ecological Society in 1913 and editor of the society’s Journal of Ecology from its first edition in 1916 until 1938. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1915. In 1941 Tansley was awarded the gold medal of the Linnean Society. He was knighted in 1950. Sir Arthur Tansley died at Grantchester, near Cambridge, on November 25, 1955.