Sir Arthur George Tansley, 1871–1955

3. Tansley and Ecology


A.G. Tansley – the founding figure of British ecology

By John Sheail, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, UK.

John has written a history of the British Ecological Society and several books on the history of conservation and the environment movement.

Tansley’s career encompassed the late-nineteenth century emergence of British ecology, its long, hesitant development, and ecology’s eventual recognition through the establishment of the Nature Conservancy in 1949, an ecological research council of which Tansley was founder-chairman. Conscious of how he was neither a taxonomist nor experimentalist, Tansley brought rather a continuing preoccupation with philosophy and processes of thought in that emergent natural-science. As noted elsewhere on this site, social scientists have highlighted his promotion of Freudian psychology, and a perceived impact within the power politics of imperial resource-development. Harry Godwin, his principal biographer, remarked, Tansley ‘concealed in himself the potentialities of many personalities, or at least several careers’115,116. Whatever the particular pursuit or sentiment, he strove for the rigour which merited scholarly and public recognition.

Tansley was blessed with both financial independence and a ‘plasticity’ of mind which prevented, so Francis Wall Oliver wrote in 1912125, his ever growing ‘old fashioned’. Arthur George Tansley was born in August 1871, the son of a London ‘high-class’ furniture manufacturer. Besides inheriting ‘the best qualities of a late Victorian liberal, free thinker and humanist’, he had the business acumen to found, sustain and edit the New Phytologist in 1902, the year of his father’s death. His marriage, a year later, to Edith Chick (daughter of a Honiton lace-merchant, and a student of botany at University College, London, UCL) brought a lifetime’s support, giving him the opportunity, for example, to resign his Cambridge post in 1922 for the greater freedom to write and study.

Tansley had left school to attend classes at UCL where he so impressed Frank Oliver, the professor of botany, that, while still a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Tansley became the Quain postgraduate Student (1893–1895) and thereafter Oliver’s assistant. He uninterruptedly obtained a first-class degree in the Cambridge Tripos examinations and helped establish UCL as a leading centre for botanical teaching. Tansley took up Oliver’s anatomical interest in fern-like plants, his studies in the evolution of the Filicinean vascular system securing him a Cambridge lectureship in 1906.

A stimulus to the founding of New Phytologist was Tansley’s recognition of the need at that time for a journal which would publish those observations and views for which there was neither the time nor means to enable them to be worked up into an elaborate paper, but which might ‘afford a much needed help or clue to some other investigators’117. Although regretting not having studied in a leading German laboratory, like many of his contemporaries, his close reading of the continental literature prepared him well for that other commonplace-maturation of the academic botanist, an overseas’ study-tour. He spent the greater part of 1900-1901 in Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and Egypt. While collecting research material as a plant anatomist, he became fascinated by the different plant communities encountered. He had, prior to the tour, made Warming’s Oekologische Pflanzengeographie141 the basis of a course of university extension-lectures. He secured six contributions to a series of ‘Sketches of Vegetation at Home and Abroad’, published in the first 10 volumes of New Phytologist, Tansley co-authoring one such ‘Sketch’ on Ceylon coastlands13. He pressed for more studies of the ‘plant communities nearer home’, writing as early as 1902 of how, once initiated, ‘the fascinating nature of the work would ensure its continuance and propagation’6.

Tansley’s paper, ‘The problems of ecology’11, which prefaced a morning session, given over to botanical survey, at the British Association’s annual meeting of 1904, became British ecology’s foundation-paper. His purpose was to demonstrate, before so large and distinguished an audience, how its practitioners must consciously strive for rigour. Ecology was still grappling with the first of the two stages of development in any natural sciences, namely with descriptive survey and explanation of what was found. That first stage had been marked by the extensive surveys of areas of Scotland pioneered by the late Robert Smith in the 1890s, and Oliver’s large-scale beach surveys, by way of annual UCL field-classes at Bouche d’Erquy, in Brittany.

A memorial plaque is attached to a sarsen stone set at the point from which Tansley admired the view of Kingley Vale. The memorial was re-dedicated by the British Ecological Society, English Nature and the New Phytologist Trust 2005.
This image is used with the kind permission of Natural England.

Tansley’s immediate object of greater co-ordination and, therefore, of self-consciousness of ecological effort, was met by William Smith (Robert’s brother and himself a pioneer of extensive mapping) in convening a Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation in December 1904. It comprised the nine most active surveyors and was under Tansley’s chairmanship. Difficulties in securing publication of the vegetation maps accelerated the shift to the second element in the Committee’s title, and Tansley’s procedural approach, namely that of studying the vegetation dynamics and ecological processes behind what members had mapped so diligently135,136.

Sufficient had been achieved by way of published memoirs, papers and maps for Tansley to plan a five-week International Phytogeographical Excursion in 1911134. Committee members prepared ‘a kind of guide book’ to their study-areas, which were to be included in the Excursion. Tansley edited, or rather brought the whole together as a synthesis of what had already been discovered of Britain’s various plant communities within their various physical and human contexts. Publication of Types of British Vegetation (1911) by the Cambridge University Press23, along with the praise of the eleven leading international botanists participating in the Excursion, encouraged the founding, in 1913, of a British Ecological Society, the first of its kind in the world, with Tansley as founder-president. The immediate object of the open membership was to secure sufficient subscription to publish a Journal of Ecology, of which Tansley (elected to the Royal Society in 1915) became its long-serving editor a year later.

Tansley was inclusive by temperament. He may have been one of the five ‘botanical bolsheviks’ to call, in the pages of New Phytologist in 1917, for ‘The reconstruction of elementary botanical teaching’32, but his purpose was not to topple comparative morphology, but rather to accommodate more fully the other parts ‘most essential to the healthy life of botany as a whole’103. It was a goal most effectively achieved through the writing of textbooks, his Practical Plant Ecology: A Guide for Beginners in Field Study of Plant Communities being published in 192339. Tansley typically sought, on the occasion of his presidency of Section K of the British Association that same year, to transcend factionalism, holding out the prospect of a unity which came from synthesising in an entirely inclusive manner the specialisation which was coming to characterise botany. Not only would that help retain a sense of community within botany, but the student would be better prepared, whether in taking up pure botany or one of its many applications within agriculture and forestry42.

For Tansley, such retention of unity was all the more rewarding for the prospect of an ‘intimate co-operation between botanists and zoologists’. There would be at last ‘a really accurate knowledge’ of the composition, behaviour and history of what the Americans called the ‘biota’, and thereby ‘the first really trustworthy body of knowledge’ in prescribing ‘the solution to many of the great economic problems which face the modern human world’. The occasion for such a remark was Tansley’s review of Charles Elton’s ‘pioneering’ book Animal Ecology of 192850. Such promise made Tansley all the more intolerant of what he perceived to be a lack of rigour. He had earlier welcomed Frederic Clements’ enthusiastic promotion of more exact measurement of the different habitat-factors. But it was Clements’ interpretation of such data acquired on plant succession, in terms of plant communities as super-organisms, which caused Tansley to rebuke him so publicly for notions of ‘holism’. Unless firmly rejected, there was risk of ridicule that would undermine the labours of British ecologists, such as William H. Pearsall, E. J. Salisbury and A. S. Watt (let alone the animal ecologists), whose studies had become exemplars of the rigour which Tansley had so long sought. Tansley turned rather to the philosophers of chemistry and mathematics for his concept of an ecosystem, whereby the climate, soils, plants and animals functioned as part of a system, each with a functional relationship with the other55.

Tansley’s appointment as Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford, in 1927, afforded opportunity to effect what he had advocated so long, both in revitalising the department and, through working with the departments of forestry and agriculture (rural economy), in instilling an ecological perspective in those directions. As chairman of the British Empire Vegetation Committee, established by the Imperial Botanical Congress, he had acted as editor of a volume Aims and Methods in the Study of Vegetation in 1926. He wrote in the foreword of how, if the living resources of the Empire were to be adequately managed by their respective colonial agencies, there had first to be study of the incidence, behaviour and potential of the different organisms48. And yet, however relevant their findings, ecologists could never rival the trained forester and agronomist for employment in those industries. Charles Elton had recognised the ecologists’ primacy in another direction, namely in their safeguarding and management of wildlife as an integral part of the amenity and recreational value of the North American national parks.

In Britain, such opportunity for advocating national parks and nature reserves emerged through the lobbying of the various voluntary preservationist- and learned- societies for a wartime voice in the preparations for post-war reconstruction. Tansley’s object, both in those discussions and the later deliberations of ministerial committees, was to instil the rigour required in determining the purpose, location and management of a statutory series of nature reserves. The measure of his success, with Charles Elton, was the appointment by royal charter of a new research council, the Nature Conservancy. Its additional powers to provide expert advice, to acquire and manage national nature reserves, and to undertake the research relevant to those executive responsibilities, were conferred by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949137.

The view from Kingley Vale southward towards Chichester was regarded by Tansley as the finest in England. He ensured that Kingley Vale was protected when in 1952 it became one of the first National Nature Reserves to be acquired by the Nature Conservancy.
Original photograph taken by Ian Alexander.

If a man may be judged in part by the company he keeps, there is perhaps a significance in George Macaulay Trevelyan being one of Tansley’s few close friends. Trevelyan, a near contemporary at Trinity College, was appointed Regius Professor of History from 1927 and, following retirement on age-grounds in 1940, Master of Trinity College. Tansley’ similar retirement in July 1937 had afforded him time to complete what began as a revision of Types of British Vegetation23, and became his greatest work of synthesis, The British Islands and their Vegetation60, published by Cambridge University Press in 1939, for which he was awarded the Linnean Society’s gold medal. It placed the field study of plants on what Tutin called ‘a broader, saner and more scientific basis’140. Trevelyan was meanwhile completing his English Social History, its broad sweep of national social life making him the nation’s historian-laureate. Its substantial royalties went to the National Trust, of which Trevelyan was both active council-member and benefactor109. Tansley perforce looked not to such voluntary bodies, but to government itself, both for the employment of ecologists and in the belief that the same large-scale national plans, which were being laid for post-war industry and transport, must also enable the country’s rural charm to be preserved. Tansley used Trevelyan’s much-quoted propagandist piece Must England’s Beauty Perish?139 to introduce his own propagandist volume Our Heritage of Wild Nature: A Plea for Organized Nature Conservation, published by the Cambridge University Press in 194566. Tansley emphasised how an expertise and experience, on the part of government agencies, was no less required for the beauty and dignity of the countryside and coast, than it was in laying out and designing post-war cities and towns.

In pressing for what he called ‘the disinterested pursuit of knowledge’, and most obviously a pre-eminence for ecology, Tansley saw nothing contradictory or embarrassing in his emphasising how scientists were profoundly influenced by their own prejudices and circumstances. As he asserted, in his Herbert Spencer Lecture 'The values of science to humanity', which he gave before an Oxford-university audience in June 1942, no one could be entirely unmoved by the social conditions of their time, or by the particular experiences of their earlier life and environment. To Tansley, it was from such personal experience that scientists were well placed to recognise the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and ultimately spiritual values that made ‘science indispensable in our complicated material world’63. The conferment of a knighthood upon Tansley, in 1950, acknowledged him as ‘the pioneer of the modern ecological approach to nature conservation’.

I am deeply grateful to Martin Tomlinson for his sharing with me recollections of his grandfather, Sir Arthur Tansley.


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