Sir Arthur George Tansley, 1871–1955

4. Tansley and Psychoanalysis


Arthur Tansley and psychoanalysis

By Laura Cameron, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada.

Laura holds the Canada Research Chair in Historical Geographies of Nature. Her interest in Tansley was fired at the University of Cambridge where she obtained her Ph D and later held a Research Fellowship.

People always are more than we know. Consider the life of Sir Arthur George Tansley. Although long honoured as an eminent British ecologist, only in the last decade have we begun to appreciate fully Tansley’s deep interest in the workings of the human mind. Psychoanalysis was the second of his life’s preoccupations and he became an important popularizer of the new science in the early twentieth century.

It is the seeming implausibility of Tansley’s involvement with Sigmund Freud that makes his story such an intriguing one for the history of science and psychoanalysis. After World War I, while lecturing in the Botany School at the University of Cambridge, Tansley wrote a best selling book on the ‘new psychology’81. It led him, dissatisfied with his career in botany – his hope of winning the Chair of Botany at Oxford had been snuffed out by that university’s traditionalists – to engage seriously with psychoanalysis. Of his distinguished patient, Sigmund Freud would write: ‘Tansley has started analysis last Saturday. I find a charming man in him, a nice type of the English scientist. It might be a gain to win him over to our science at the loss of botany.’126 With Tansley’s increasing immersion in psychoanalytic communities and writings came his resignation from the Botany School and further periods of intense personal conflict. As Tansley put it himself, in 1926, ‘…it was touch and go whether I became a professional psychoanalyst’ or took the Chair of Botany at Oxford which, in a reversal of fortunes, was now being offered to him105. Oxford would win out but psychoanalysis would continue to impact on Tansley’s life and thought, just as his involvement would have lasting effects in psychoanalytic circles.

An interest in psychology perhaps first manifested during Tansley’s undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge (1890–1894) where, he recalled, he took part in the ‘…usual interminable discussions on the universe - on philosophy, psychology, religion, politics, art and sex.’105 Tansley counted the future philosopher Bertrand Russell amongst his college friends; informally he made a character study of Russell and gave counsel regarding his personal life106.

Although it was in botany that Tansley had begun his career (first teaching at University College London and then the University of Cambridge), he continued to follow developments in psychology through influential contacts such as his former student Bernard Hart, an asylum doctor and author of The Psychology of Insanity, first published in 1912. Tansley would mention Sigmund Freud in his botany lectures at Cambridge and even shared proofs of Hart’s book with undergraduates in his classes108. When WWI broke out, Tansley kept in touch with the Cambridge botany students and colleagues who went to join the British forces; several of them would be killed or suffer psychological effects of ‘shell-shock’. Tansley himself began service in London as a clerk in the Ministry of Munitions and it was during this period that he considerably deepened his knowledge of Freud’s work.

Tansley attributed this new intensity of interest to a dream107. Occurring sometime around 1916, Tansley’s dream and his own analysis of it impressed him so deeply that he resolved to read Freud’s published books, a task facilitated by his knowledge of German. In 1953, when asked to record for the Sigmund Freud Archives (later sited at the Library of Congress) his memories of his relationship with Freud and psychoanalysis, he wrote: ‘My interest in the whole subject was now thoroughly aroused, and after a good deal of thought I determined to write my own picture of it as it shaped itself in my mind.’107 This ‘picture’ was The New Psychology and its Relation to Life, published in June 192081. Tansley had captured the postwar enthusiasm for Freudianism and published one of the most celebrated surveys of the ‘new psychology’ to date. It was reprinted 10 times in four years, in the first three years selling more than 10,000 copies in the United Kingdom, more than 4,000 in the same period in the United States, and was translated into German and Swedish107.

Sigmund Freud in 1925 by Robert Kastor. Courtesy of

Tansley was disconcerted by the response to his book. Feeling he could not give adequate answers to myriad requests for advice without further knowledge of psychoanalysis, Tansley asked Freud’s ‘lieutenant’ in London, Ernest Jones, for an introduction to Freud so that he could undergo analysis. Freud arranged for Tansley to spend three months in Vienna, from the end of March to June 1922. Upon returning to England, Tansley began to strengthen his psychoanalytic networks and played a major role in the Symposium on the Relations of Complex and Sentiment for the July 1922 meeting of the British Psychological Society. As he stressed here and later in a 1923 letter to the American plant ecologist Frederic Clements, outlining his view of the central issues in the field of psychology: ‘The question of the applicability of Freudian method to the ‘normal’ mind is doubtless the crucial question.’106

Tansley felt the pursuit of both psychology and ecology increased his power of work ‘…largely I think to the release of powers through emotional clarification…’ but, he lamented to Clements ‘…the double pull is a considerable strain.’107 In the late spring of 1923, Tansley resigned from the Cambridge Botany School and in September he moved to Vienna with his wife and daughters; his analysis with Freud resumed in late December. After returning to London in May 1924, Tansley would attend the Eighth International Psychoanalytic Congress in Salzburg. On Freud’s recommendation, he took on a psychoanalytic case, to acquaint himself fully with the discipline, and on 7 October 1925, he was elected to full membership of the British Psychoanalytic Society.

Tansley made his Freudian commitments public in a series of polemical exchanges defending psychoanalysis in the Nation and Athenaeum in 1925; the acrimonious debate began with his favourable review of Freud’s Case Histories (13 June, 8 August, 12 September). However, as the year passed, Tansley may have judged that as a non-medical biologist, his opportunities were beginning to appear limited in psychoanalytical circles. The international psychoanalytic movement was rapidly moving toward a system of Education Committees that marked the beginning of more strictly hierarchical institutions devoted to training professional, and frequently medically qualified, psychoanalysts108. At the same time, Tansley’s continuing ecological work was held in increasingly high regard and, in 1926, he accepted an invitation to re-apply for the Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. Although his career path was now clear, Tansley remained a champion of psychoanalytic science, hoping for it to evolve as more of an ‘open city’89 than a ‘defensively stocked camp’, and left a number of unpublished psychoanalytic papers. Tansley’s final book, completed in 1952, was 'Mind and Life: An Essay in Simplification', an overarching synthesis of the twin preoccupations of his professional career87.

Tansley continued to correspond with Freud113 and Freudian circles. After Freud’s death, Tansley provided the Royal Society with a beautifully crafted obituary. Sir Harry Godwin, Tansley’s former student and esteemed colleague, perceptively noted that nearly all of the gifts that Tansley described in Freud were ones that he ‘unconsciously acknowledged’ as attributes they held in common: they were ‘full of attractive ironic humour and with a very pungent wit’ and ‘free from illusions about human nature’116. Godwin also related that Tansley, when asked at an Oxford gathering ‘to name the man who, since the birth of Christ, would prove to have had the most lasting influence upon the world, unhesitatingly chose Freud’. When pondering Tansley’s profound conflicts or potential connections between his ecological and psychological pursuits, no doubt that is a choice to keep in mind.


Next page 5. Social Psychology