Skip to main content

Tansley, Sir Arthur George, 1871-1955 (Knight, plant ecologist)



  • Existence: 1871 - 1955


Arthur George Tansley was born in London on 15 August 1871. He was educated at a preparatory school in Worthing, Sussex, 1883-1886 and Highgate School, London where the teaching of science was 'farcically inadequate', 1886 to the beginning of 1889 when he left school to attend classes at University College London, listening to the lectures of R. Lankester, W. Ramsey and F.W. Oliver. In October 1890 he entered Trinity College Cambridge to read for the Natural Sciences Tripos. After taking Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1893 he was invited by Oliver to join him as assistant in the Botany Department, University College London with the result that he spent 1893-1894 teaching in London and preparing for Part II of the Tripos at Cambridge, which he took in May and June 1894. Tansley's association with Oliver lasted 13 years until he was appointed Lecturer in Botany in Cambridge in 1907. During his time at University College London he visited Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula 1900-1901 and founded a new botanical journal The New Phytologist in 1902, which he continued to edit to 1931. In Cambridge Tansley's interests turned increasingly to plant ecology, and as these interests grew he became a mainstay of British ecology and one of its acknowledged leaders worldwide. A light lecturing commitment left free the season from Easter to October for work in the field, and he organised and conducted many student excursions in such areas as the Norfolk Broads, the New Forest, the Forest of Dean and the Malvern District. In this way he acquired considerable knowledge of the vegetation of different parts of Great Britain. In 1911 Tansley organised the first International Phytogeographical Excursion in the British Isles, inviting a number of European and American botanists interested in phytogeography to visit selected localities in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland over a number of weeks. Partly to help the foreign visitors unfamiliar with the British vegetation, a small book, Types of British Vegetation, largely written by Tansley, was published in 1911. This was the first systematic account of British vegetation, as distinct from flora. A second International Phytogeographical Excursion followed in the USA in 1913 and it was subsequently decided to make these excursions and permanent institution. In 1904 at Tansley's initiative a small body had been formed consisting of a number of British botanists who were especially interested in British vegetation: a Central Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation, afterwards shortened to British Vegetation Committee. In 1913 the Committee gave way to the British Ecological Society with a membership open to anyone interested in ecology at large, of both plants and animals, and Tansley served as its first President. At the same time the Journal of Ecology was founded as the organ of the new society, and Tansley served as its editor, 1917-1937. During the First World War Tansley became interested in psychology. He was greatly attracted to the work of Sigmund Freud, seeking to assimilate Freudian concepts with biological principles. At the end of the war he attempted an English presentation of his understanding of what psychological teaching signified in terms of biology and daily life. Tansley's 'The new psychology and its relation to life' was published in 1920 and enjoyed a considerable success with professional psychologists and the wider public in Britain and overseas. In 1923 he resigned his university lectureship in botany and spent 1923-1924 studying with Freud in Vienna. After a period without an academic position Tansley accepted an invitation to apply for the vacant Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. Elected in January 1927 he held the Chair for ten and a half years (with a fellowship of Magdalen College), retiring as Emeritus Professor in 1937. He infused new life into the Oxford botanical department, making himself responsible for a considerable programme of lectures and field work. He also embarked on a substantial book, an expanded version of his earlier 'Types of British vegetation,' which appeared in 1939 as 'The British Islands and their vegetation' and secured the author the Linnean Society's Gold Medal in 1941. In retirement Tansley was able to take on a good deal of public service, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Nature Conservancy. His nature conservation interests were, however, of long standing. In 1913 he had accepted an invitation to join the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (founded a year earlier by Charles Rothschild) and serve on its Council. In 1942 the Council of the British Ecological Society appointed a committee (chaired by Tansley) on 'Nature Conservation and Nature Reserves,' whose report was published in the Society's journals in 1944. In 1945 the Minister of Town and Country Planning appointed a Nature Reserves Investigation Committee, and as an adjunct to it a Wild Life Conservation Special Committee of which Tansley was Vice-Chairman and in fact Acting Chairman for most of its existence, 1945-1947. When the Nature Conservancy was established by Royal Charter in 1949, Tansley was appointed chairman, a position he held until 1953 when he resigned, mainly owing to increasing deafness. Other public service included work for the National Trust and his Presidency of the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies, 1949-1953. He continued to publish, for example a semi-popular book to support the conservation movement 'Our heritage of wild nature' in 1945 and a shorter popular presentation of his big book on 'British Isles and their vegetation,' which appeared in 1949 as 'Britain's green mantle.' Other activities of his later years included his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in 1942 on 'The values of science to humanity': he had corresponded with Spencer as a young man, 1895-1896; and his active support of the Society for Freedom in Science. Tansley was elected FRS in 1915 and knighted in 1950. He died at Granchester near Cambridge, 25 November 1955. The preceding account draws on H. Godwin's 'Arthur George Tansley 1971-1955,' Biographical Memories of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 3, November 1957.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:


Arthur Tansley: Papers

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Tansley
Scope and Contents The collection is comprised of biographical materials (mainly about or rembrances of Tansley), notes and notebooks used by Tansley for field notes, manuscripts and notes for Tansley's book and lectures and psychology, correspondence and other materials relate to publications, material related to lectures and broadcasts (the latter of which Tansley may not have been involved in), documentation of Tansley's involvement in various Societies and Organisations (he had key roles in several),...
Dates: 1854-2008
Conditions Governing Access: Some items are restricted at the discretion of the Keeper of Manuscripts.

Correspondence from A.G. Tansley, 23 Feb. 1943-27 Oct. 1943

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.9251/T/1-3
Scope and Contents From the Fonds: The correspondence consists of c.1100 letters, 1926-61, with the letters after 1959 addressed to Kendon's widow. The correspondents include Lascelles Abercrombie (1 letter, 1931); Ernest Altounyan (surgeon, Aleppo) (17, 1936-51); John Arlott (3, 1944); John Armitage (4, 1940-51); Henry Baerlein (3, 1945-56); Sir Ernest Barker (2, 1948-55); H.E. Bates (1, 1941); Clifford Bax (1, 1948); Adrian H. Bell (11, 1940-47); Ernest A. Benians (8, 1948); Anthony Bertram (2, 1948); Edmund Blunden (16,...
Dates: 23 Feb. 1943-27 Oct. 1943
Conditions Governing Access: From the Fonds: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Additional filters:

Archival Object 1
Collection 1
Botany 1
Ecology 1
Psychology 1
Science 1