I have found that the term "organism" does not originate from any writings of Aristotle or some other ancient Greek, though Aristotle freely uses the term "organon", spelled "organ" in English, to denote a part of a living being or of man in particular.

It is obvious that the term is of late origin by some European scholar. Wikipedia states that it "first appeared in the English language in 1701 and took on its current definition by 1834 (Oxford English Dictionary)". Still, no specific reference is provided.

Who first used the term "organism" and when and where was it used?

3 Answers 3


The OED’s 1701 citation (the earliest) is from Nehemiah Grew’s Cosmologia sacra: or a discourse of the universe. It reads:

It is the advantagious Organism of the Eye, by which that is procured.

At the time, it meant Organic structure.

The 1834 citation is from Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London and reads:

The introduction of new powers into an organism necessarily requires a modification in its mode of development.

The meaning there is An individual animal, plant, or single-celled life form. Also: the material structure of such an individual; an instance of this.


First of all, etymoline.com says:

1660s, "organic structure, organization," from organize (q.v.). Sense of "living animal or plant" first recorded 1842.

The earliest I found in Google Books is 1715's Philosophical Principles of Religion: Natural and Revealed: in Two Parts, Parts 1-2 by George Cheyne:

By this Principle, as a Key, the whole Phyhsophy, of Humane Nature, of the Animal, Rational, and Divine Life, of the Passions, and Affections of the Soul, and even of the Organism of the Body, so far as it is Just and Genuine, ...


Organism meant something more like organisation (or organs), and organisms (in our sense) were called "organized beings" until the turn of the 18th century. The first person to use "organism" in the modern English sense of whom I know is Richard Owens in his treatise on the kangaroo. However, see Tobias Cheung's excellent essay:

"What is an "organism"? On the occurrence of a new term and its conceptual transformations 1680-1850" https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21162367/

Abstract This paper retraces the occurrence of the word 'organism' in writings of different authors from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. It seeks to clarify chronological and conceptual shifts in the usage and meaning of the word. After earlier uses of the word in medieval sources, the Latin word organismus appeared in 1684 in Stahl's medico-physiological writings. Around 1700 it can be found in French (organisme), English (organism), Italian (organismo) and later also in German (Organismus). During the eighteenth century the word ‘organism’ generally referred to a specific principle or form of order that could be applied to plants, animals or the entire world. At the end of the eighteenth century the term became a generic name for individual living entities. From around 1830 the word 'organism' replaced the expressions 'organic' or 'organized body' as a recurrent technical term in the emerging biological disciplines.

  • 1
    You should include the key points of the linked article here since links can rot. Oct 12, 2021 at 5:31
  • Will do, although the link is a standard National Institutes of Health one that will remain stable for a long time. Oct 13, 2021 at 8:18

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