Sir Arthur George Tansley, 1871–1955


Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley by Peter Ayres

The linked pages provide a short introduction to the life and achievements of Sir Arthur Tansley, founder of New Phytologist.


For a more in-depth biography read the book Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley by Peter Ayres, former Editor-in-Chief of New Phytologist.




1. The Man

Tansley provided his generation of botanists with a vehicle for exchanging information and opinion when in 1902 he founded the New Phytologist. He was only 30 years old. His influence grew steadily and he is now recognised as the father of British ecology.

His drive helped found the British Vegetation Committee, which in 1913 evolved into the British Ecological Society. He was its first President and soon Editor of its Journal of Ecology. He served immediately after WWII on the government committee looking at the establishment of national nature reserves. The outcome was the establishment of the Nature Conservancy in 1949. Tansley was its first Chairman. He was already President of the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies (now the Field Studies Council). For a closer insight see Tansley as the founding figure of British ecology by John Sheail.

The first issue of The New Phytologist was published in January 1902 replacing the ‘British Botanical Journal’. To read the editorial by Tansley and papers in the first issue go to January 1902 issue.

The British Islands and Their Vegetation, 4th edition. The first edition was published in 1939.

Britain’s Green Mantle, 2nd edition. The first edition was published in 1949.



From small beginnings – research papers on the tissues that conduct water in mosses and ferns – Tansley’s writing grew in scope and ambition. His principles of ecology – most notably the ecosystem – shaped the emergent science both in Britain and throughout the world. The British Islands and their Vegetation (1939) distilled for ecologists his lifetime’s work, while Plant Ecology and the School (1946) and Britain’s Green Mantle (1949) helped popularise ecology among a wider public. View a complete list of Tansley’s publications.

Happily acknowledging his debts to the Alsacien botanist, Andreas Schimper, and the Dane, Eugen Warming, Tansley changed their plant geography into his ecology. His general approach and overarching theories provided a model that was adopted across Europe and in N. America. For more information about Tansley from a ‘continental view point’ (by Christian Körner) and for a view of British ecology from ‘across the pond’ (by Michael Huston) read the articles by clicking on the links.

Attracted in mid-life to psychology, and following publication in 1920 of his The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life, Tansley studied with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. For full details go to Arthur Tansley and psychoanalysis by Laura Cameron. He wrote other landmark articles in psychology (see publications) but the centre of his attention eventually returned to botany. Psychoanalysis helped shaped his personal philosophy.

Ecological theory was moulded to suit different interpretations of the way the wildlife and peoples of the British Empire had evolved, and should be managed. In contrast to Tansley’s mechanistic views, South African ecologists, led by Jan Smuts, Prime Minister and war-hero, argued for an idealistic ecology, an integral part of which was the supremacy of one human race over another. Peder Anker considers Tansley’s work from social psychology to ecology.


Next page 2. Tansley and New Phytologist