The Complete History of Tree Surgery and Arboriculture

Tree surgery and arboriculture has a rich and long history. People have appreciated the fortitude and beauty of trees forever, but the science of studying trees is only around 120 years old.


What is arboriculture?

Arboriculture is the study, management and cultivation of individual vines, shrubs and trees as well as perennial woody plants. Arboriculture as a science studies how trees (and woody plants) grow and, in particular, how they respond to the environment and cultural practices. It focuses mainly on individual trees that are for amenity or landscape purposes rather than timber production. These are usually located in parks and gardens and are there to benefit the public.

An arboriculturalist or arborist is someone who studies or practices arboriculture. A tree surgeon, on the other hand, is someone with training in the field of maintaining and manipulating trees.

Arboricultural practice involves tree planting, tree fertilisation, controlling pathogens and pests, tree pruning, tree shaping and tree removal. There are other considerations involved in arboriculture including aesthetic considerations, legal issues and risk management. Often, for example, businesses need arboriculturalists to visit their premises to carry out a tree hazard survey and to manage on-site trees in order to meet requirements of health and safety.


The First Ever Tree Surgeon

Born on the 6th June 1846 in a small village called Stawley in Somerset, John Davey is well known as the founder of tree surgery. His father was a farm superintendent and under his father’s guidance, John Davey learnt to appreciate the outdoors and what comes with it. With his father’s tutelage, he developed a strong interest in arboriculture.

Aged 27, Davey relocated to the United States to Kent in Ohio. He worked at Standing Rock Cemetery and planted lots of new flowers, shrubs and trees. He was also responsible for planting hundreds of new trees along the streets in Kent and around houses in his community. He also carried out a modest amount of what we would now call ‘tree surgery.’

He created a greenhouse and in 1878 began producing a newsletter once a month to educate his customers. This monthly newsletter was called “Davey’s Floral and Landscape Educator.” Around two years after he began his newsletter in 1880, Davey founded his organisation “The Davey Tree Expert Company.” Even though over 100 years have now passed, this organisation still exists today. When the company became incorporated in February 1909, the President was listed as John Davey while Martin L. Davey, his son, was the treasurer and general manager. Leadership clearly ran in the family as Martin later became governor of Ohio in the pre-WWII era of 1935-1939.

By 1915, Davey’s company was expanding at a rapid pace. In the five years from 1915 to 1920, Davey Tree saw more than fivefold growth.

It’s a known fact that John Davey did not know the alphabet until he was in his 20s but he was certainly an intellectual and analytical man who was able to pursue a career demonstrating himself to be an excellent author, orator, inventor and publisher. He believed that people should go to great lengths to preserve the earth’s natural resources and trees were a huge part of that since they take a vast amount of time to replace.


The Davey Tree Expert Company

Otherwise known as Davey Tree, this company has grown to be a multinational company that is an employee-owned corporation. It provides environmental consulting services, tree services, lawn care and utilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Typically, it provides its tree services to businesses and homeowners as well as federal, state and local agencies and public utilities. In fact, it is the largest company of its kind in the whole on the North American continent.

The company has been owned by its employees since 1979. It has its headquarters in Kent, Ohio and, in 2018, was listed by Forbes as one of the best employers of more than 5000 employees in America – it ranked 294/500. Today, its sales figures topple $1 billion and there are around 7000 employees.

The motto of Davey Tree is “Do It Right or Not at All.”


The Tree Doctor

Davey was determined to share his tree care methods with the wider public and so, in 1901, he published a book called The Tree Doctor. The book was available for $1 and detailed his methods on arboriculture and tree care. It included photographs that helped to illustrate the methods used, which was a rarity for the era. Davey also discussed his inventions, which helped to lay the groundwork for his future patents. On two patents, John Davey was named as the inventor and he developed the research that led to twelve other patents.

Davey was the first to see arboriculture as a science and he talked about tree surgery in a new way with his analogy of tree work to care by a physician – hence the term ‘tree surgery.’ This new way of thinking was responsible for a shift in perceptions and attitudes. Davey likened a tree needing repair to a person needing surgery. Just like a person wouldn’t go to a butcher for an operation, trees should be treated by a ‘tree scientist’, that is to say, a person who is versed in the most up-to-date arboriculture methods.

He demonstrated the need to conserve and preserve forests, woodlands and natural landscapes and he urged both governments and citizens to adopt a more scientific approach to preserving trees. Many of Davey’s methods, pruning, for example, are still used by tree surgeons today.


Tree Surgery Research and Inventions

John Davey was responsible for numerous inventions in the tree surgery field. Among these included tree bracing and cabling, tree cavity filling, innovations in disease prevention and fertilization and large tree moving.  John Davey wasn’t always correct but what he did do was turn looking after trees into science. This science is constantly evolving as tree surgeons and arborists gather more data and knowledge.


Pruning the John Davey Way

As mentioned above, many of Davey’s pruning techniques are still being used today. How a branch or limb is pruned or trimmed has consequences for the whole tree. With this understanding, Davey looked at different pruning methods. Among his pruning innovations was the hypothesis that tree wounds should be sterilised and waterproof in order to heal and avoid becoming decayed, just like a house made of wood needs a coat of paint or waterproof protection.

Another thing that Davey noted with regards to pruning was that trees that were not pruned correctly, would not be able to heal themselves. This is what lead to him developing and promoting proper techniques for pruning. Of these techniques was the angled cut, the theory being that this type of cut conforms to the natural physiological processes of the tree. For the time, this innovation in pruning was pretty radical. In fact, it is only in the last 25 years that this technique has been adopted as an industry standard. Now, it has become the most widely used tree pruning method as it means the tree has minimal damage during the process and can heal properly.


Davey’s Cavity Filling Technique

John Davey noticed that trees with hollows were susceptible to developing wounds that began as exterior callouses, which then inflicted decay inside the cavity. With this in mind, Davey developed a process to fill cavities that artificially replaced the supporting surface. This meant that the callous would be restored to health over the cavity.

Davey used another analogy to explain his technique for cavity filling that was linked to the medical profession. He explained how tree surgeons worked like dentists to fill cavities, disinfect them and then seal them to protect them. Nowadays, however, cavity filling is considered to be a damaging practice that does not form part of modern-day arboriculture. The current approach is to avoid large wounds forming. This means that there should be no interference with the natural decay process.


Bracing and cabling – Davey’s research

Davey carried out research, which determined structurally weak trees due to the pattern of their branches. Davey invented bracing and cabling methods with steel in order to preserve trees like stately elms from succumbing to the stresses and strains of strong winds and big storms. Davey’s techniques meant that urban areas could prevent damage caused to properties from falling trees. Also, it meant that homeowners and pedestrians were safer going about their business near large trees. The Davey practice of cable bracing still exists today.


The Davey Compressor

As WWI ended, John Davey’s youngest son Paul returned from service and became the Davey Tree Expert Company’s head of research. Paul Davey went on to develop and patent an air compressor that was used for tree surgery. This lightweight compressor was the start of the subsequent Davey Compressor Company. The “Davey Compressor” was an air-cooled machine whose uses would end up far-reaching through the coming years. For its time, it was remarkably innovative. It was much more portable and substantially less bulky than conventional compressors that worked on water cooling.

The Davey Compressor had a finned aluminium head which served to conduct heat from the engine so water cooling wasn’t needed. Despite being smaller and lighter than conventional compressors of the time, the Davey Compressor was just as powerful. It was used in the removal of decay from cavities in trees.

Paul Davey went on to get patents for more than 50 improvements and designs in this field and the Davey Compressor Company went from strength to strength in Kent, Ohio.

The Second World War didn’t stop Paul Davey and he used his ingenuity to help in the war. His company turned to manufacturing truck-driven equipment like field servicing units, compressors for the military and floodlighting.


Tree Surgery as a Scientific Study

John Davey was very enthusiastic about improving the tools and the technology that was needed for advancements in the research of tree care. Davey’s company created a research station underground called the rhisotron. This was a station that was 1.2 m. sq. and 1.2 metres deep. One side there was polished glass which allowed Davey to study the growth of tree roots directly.

Davey’s invention meant that he was the first person to prove how tree roots grow laterally and shallow rather than vertically and deep, which was the view of his contemporaries. With this discovery, Davey led the way to develop watering and root fertilization techniques that could stimulate tree growth.

In 1908, Davey founded the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery. This was a cutting-edge facility that was dedicated to teach its employees the necessary skills. This institute is still providing training to Davey Tree employees.


Davey’s Tree Surgery Patents

John Davey is attributed to the following patents:

  1. The Process of Treating and Dressing a Bruise or Wound in the Trunk or Live Brank of a Live Tree (Patent #890,968, 1908)

This patent details the process of preserving and revitalising dying and injured trees through a surgery-like method. The process removes the unsound and decayed wood from the tree and then fills it with a cement-like material and anchor ties so that the tree is reinforced. Firstly, molten tar is applied to coat the cavity, a system for drainage is installed and then a waterproof covering is added.

  1. Means for Tying Tree Branches Together (Patent #860,967, 1908)

This patent details how to brace two branches together when there is a wound at the base. The patent uses a chain-link device that has a shank and hook bolts at the ends so that the tied branches move together.


Davey’s Legacy

John Davey died in 1923 at the age of 77. He received substantial praise from many high-profile people of his day and became recognised as a leader in arboriculture. Just three years before his death, he received acclaim from The Naval Academy and The White House as well as entrepreneurs and innovators William Wrigley, John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Eddison.


The Arboricultural Association in the UK

The Arboricultural Association is an educational and scientific organisation that began in 1964. It is an association that promotes the value and care of trees everywhere. The association has trees at its core and recognises that both our environment and our health benefit massively from trees.

The Arboricultural Association published its first issue of The Arboricultural Association Journal in May of 1965. It was also responsible for the development of tree-related documents and British Standards. Included in these were BS3936: 1965 Nursery Stock – Trees and Shrubs, BS3998: 1966 Recommendations for Tree Work, and BS4043: 1966 Semi-Mature Trees.

In the same year, ABTSA (The Association of British Tree Surgeons and Arborists) was formed. The two associations later merged in 1974 and became the “new” AA that incorporated ABTSA.

The AA is responsible for the development of new standards and documents related to trees, including Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs).

In 1971, The AA launched its professional accreditation and its Register of Consultants and Directory of Approved Contractors.

Today, the AA has 3200 members and is officially the largest association in the United Kingdom for professionals working in tree care for amenity trees. The AA defines amenity trees as “those with recreational, functional, environment, ecological, social, health or aesthetic value as opposed to those cultivated as a timber crop.” It is responsible for regulating the qualifications and education of the UK’s tree surgeons and it gives a voice to those involved in the industry. Members of the AA receive support and benefits that are tailored to their needs through their career in arboriculture. They are able to get involved in decisions and have their say on key developments.

Many people think of the AA as being a focal point for best practice across the world for all sectors involved in arboriculture and all professionals working in tree care.


Other Notable Arborists

Aside from Davey, there are other acclaimed arborists in the history of arboriculture and tree surgery. These include:

  • Francis A. Bartlett – the founder of The Bartlett Tree Expert Company in 1907. Dr Bartlett was the first arborist to use power-spray equipment for pest management. He also created cabling and bracing methods.
  • John Chapman – a pioneering orchardist and nurseryman from the U.S. who was aptly named Johnny Appleseed. He was responsible for introducing apple trees to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
  • Sebastian Junger – an arborist from Massachusetts who later went on to write Perfect Storm and War.
  • Chuck Leavell – author of The Tree Farmer, a children’s book, as well as the recipient of the Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year award twice.
  • Alex Shigo – named as ‘the father of modern arboriculture.’ Shigo was a Pennsylvanian plant pathologist and biologist for the United States Forest Service. He had more than 270 publications.
  • Mark Hartley – founder of the Australian National Arborist Association who introduced standards to Australian arboricultural practices.


Final thoughts

Tree surgery doesn’t just involve the proper felling of trees. Moreover, it is a whole field of knowledge surround tree planting, shrub planting, tree care, shrub care, tree removal and shrub removal. Throughout the history of tree surgery, there have been many advances that have ensured trees are healthier and safer. What’s more, the process of tree removal is much safer too.


Article was written by Conner D.

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