The first ecologists
The first ecologists In the years between 1900 and 1905, several botanists (fewer zoologists) began to speak of their studies as ecological. The term was used as a synonym for biology in its more narrow sense. Ten years later, around the time of the World War I, ecology had become recognized as a special discipline among academic botanists and zoologists. The first conscious claims for a science of ecology thus came from academia. Problems and studies addressed in the name of plant and animal geography, or plant-animal biology, started to be called ecological. Why did these scientists call their studies ecological, even though they were not substantially different from those carried out by their older colleagues for the last thirty years?
The inspiration largely came from the Dane Eugenius Warming, an international pioneer in plant ecology active at Stockholm University for a few years in the 1890s. His textbook Plantesamfund (Plant Societies) from 1895 had been an immediate success, and his conscientious studies of morphological and anatomical adaptations to various environments were regarded as exemplary. He also coined a new concept—‘life forms’—that came to play a major role in plant ecology. Warming maintained that his methods and theories constituted a new specialization in botany.
However, this did not mean that there was uncritical acceptance of Warming’s version of what ecology was. Especially his teleological, that is, purpose-oriented, way of explaining the adaptation of plants came under fire, by among others Rutger Sernander, who instead worked according to strictly empirical and descriptive methods, in line with what von Post had done.
If Hampus von Post was the great all-round naturalist, then Sernander was the 20th-century equivalent. He wrote about ants and their vegetation, species formation, adaptation in ants, lichens, nitrogen-capturing plants, decomposing leaves, etc. But his main work lay in plant ecology, the analysis of the history of plant societies. Sernander’s seminar at Uppsala, titled ‘Swedish Plant Societies,’ attracted both young students and interested amateurs; a lively forum for ecology was created.
Frans Kempe, a progressive entrepreneur and president of the forestry company Mo & Domsjö, donated a large sum of money to establish a professorial chair in plant biology at Uppsala. The first holder, Axel Lundström, an old fellow student of Kempe and a prominent plant biologist, died young, and Rutger Sernander took over. Dynamic activities were initiated, work that differed markedly from the laboratory-based research pursued at Stockholm. In the first ten years, 43 different lecturers gave 126 lectures, and numerous excursions were arranged, Sernander himself leading 84 of them, plus those led by his students and all the unofficial field trips. The lectures and excursions also attracted curious amateurs. In line with his ideals of universal education, Sernander felt that everyone had something to contribute. One of his students claimed: “Never before had an academic teacher been so beloved, indeed, admired. I assume that such enthusiasm has not been seen since Linnaeus led his famous herbationes.”
Nor did Henrik Hesselman at Stockholm accept the kind of ecology that Warming represented. Inspired by the traditions at both Stockholm and Uppsala, he combined plant biology with plant geography. His truly pioneering efforts were his field experiments. Earlier plant biologists studied the physiological reactions of plants in laboratory environments; Hesselman took the equipment with him outdoors and monitored various parameters under natural conditions. This had hardly been done before, either in Sweden or abroad. He wanted ecology to study not only the external adaptations of plants to their environment but also the physiological mechanisms behind the adaptations. In 1902 the Forstliga Experimental Station was established, and he was employed as an assistant. Ten years later he was appointed professor at the facility, which was now called the Swedish National Institute for Forestry Research.
The insistence that ecology was a special discipline came from two sources—on the one hand, from plant geography and plant biology, with a basis in field studies, a tradition in which Rutger Sernander at Uppsala was the central figure. At the same time, Henrik Hesselman in Stockholm advocated a more laboratory-based form of ecology. At this time there was no discernible opposition between these two traditions, but later on in the development of ecology these two approaches would find themselves very much at odds with each other.