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John Ray


John Ray (November 29, 1627 – January 17, 1705) was an English naturalist, sometimes referred to as the father of English natural history. Until 1670, he wrote his name as John Wray although no one knows why.[citation needed]

He published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology. His classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum, was an important step towards modern taxonomy. Ray rejected the system of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a pre-conceived, either/or type system, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation. Thus he advanced scientific empiricism against the deductive rationalism of the scholastics.

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Early Life

John Ray was born in the village of Black Notley, near Braintree, in the county of Essex, in the south east of England. He is said to have been born in the smithy, his father having been the blacksmith of Black Notley near Braintree. From Braintree school he was sent at the age of sixteen to Catharine Hall, Cambridge, whence he removed to Trinity College after about one year and three-quarters. His tutor at Trinity was James Duport, Regius Professor of Greek, and his intimate friend and fellow-pupil the celebrated Isaac Barrow. Ray was chosen minor fellow of Trinity in 1649, and in due course became a major fellow on proceeding to the master's degree. He held many college offices, becoming successively lecturer in Greek (1651), mathematics (1653),and humanity (1655), praelector (1657), junior dean (1657), and college steward (1659 and 1660); and according to the habit of the time, he was accustomed to preach in his college chapel and also at Great St Mary's before the university, long before he took holy orders. Among his sermons preached before his ordination, which was not till the 23 December, 1660, were the famous discourses on The Wisdom of God in the Creation, and on The Chaos, Deluge and Dissolution of the World. Ray's reputation was high also as a tutor; and he communicated his own passion for natural history to several pupils, of whom Francis Willughby is by far the most famous.


Ray's quiet college life closed when he found himself unable to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity 1661, and was obliged to give up his fellowship in 1662, the year after Isaac Newton had entered the college. We are told by Dr Derham in his Life of Ray that the reason of his refusal:

"was not (as some have imagined) his having taken the 'Solemn League and Covenant', for that he never did, and often declared that he ever thought it an unlawful oath; but he said he could not declare for those that had taken the oath that no obligation lay upon them, but feared there might"

From this time onwards he seems to have depended chiefly on the bounty of his pupil Willughby, who made Ray his constant companion while he lived, and at his death left him 6 shillings a year, with the charge of educating his two sons.

In the spring of 1663 Ray started together with Willughby and two other pupils on a tour through Europe, from which he returned in March 1666, parting from Willughby at Montpellier, whence the latter continued his journey into Spain. He had previously in three different journeys (1658, 1661, 1662) travelled through the greater part of Great Britain, and selections from his private notes of these journeys were edited by George Scott in 1760, under the title of Mr Ray's Itineraries. Ray himself published an account of his foreign travel in 1673, entitled Observations topographical, moral, and physiological, made on a Journey through part of the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, and France. From this tour Ray and Willughby returned laden with collections, on which they meant to base complete systematic descriptions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Willughby undertook the former part, but, dying in 1672, left only an ornithology and ichthyology, in themselves vast, for Ray to edit; while the latter used the botanical collections for the groundwork of his Methodus planiarurn nova (1682), and his great Historia generalis plantarum (3 vols., 1686, 1688, 1704). The plants gathered on his British tours had already been described in his Catalogus plantarum Angliae (1670), which work is the basis of all later English floras.

In 1667 Ray was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1669 he published in conjunction with Willughby his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions on Experiments concerning the Motion of Sap in Trees. They demonstrated the ascent of the sap through the wood of the tree, and supposed the sap to precipitate a kind of white coagulum or jelly, which may be well conceived to be the part which every year between bark and tree turns to wood and of which the leaves and fruits are made. Immediately after his admission into the Royal Society he was induced by Bishop John Wilkins to translate his Real Character into Latin, and it seems he actually completed a translation, which, however, remained in manuscript; his Methodus plantarum nova was in fact undertaken as a part of Wilkins's great classificatory scheme.

In 1673 Ray married Margaret Oakley of Launton; in 1676 he went to Sutton Coldfield, and in 1677 to Falborne Hall in Essex. Finally, in 1679, he removed to Black Notley, where he afterwards remained. His life there was quiet and uneventful, although he had poor health, including chronic sores. He occupied himself in writing books and in keeping up a wide scientific correspondence, and lived, in spite of his infirmities, to the age of seventy-six, dying at Black Notley on 17 January, 1705. The Ray Society, for the publication of works on natural history, was founded in his honor in 1844.


Ray's first book, the Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (1660, followed by appendices in 1663 and 1685), was written in conjunction with his amicissimus et individuus comes, John Nid. The 626 plants are listed alphabetically, but a system of classification differing little from Caspar Bauhin's is sketched at the end of the book; and the notes contain many references to other parts of natural history. The locations of the plants are minutely described; and Cambridge students still gather some of their rarer plants in the copses or chalk-pits where he found them. The book shows signs of his indebtedness to Joachim Jung of Hamburg, who had died in 1657, leaving his writings unpublished; but a manuscript copy of some of them was sent to Ray by Samuel Hartlib in 1660. Jung invented or gave precision to many technical terms which Ray and others at once made use of in their descriptions, and which are now classical; and his notions of what constitutes a specific distinction and what characters are valueless as such seem to have been adopted with little change by Ray. The first two editions of the Catalogus plantarum Angliae (1670, 1677) were likewise it must be remembered that the difference between the monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous embryo was detected by Nehemiah Grew. A serious fault was his persistent separation of trees from herbs, a distinction whose falsity had been exposed by Jung and others, but to which Ray tried to give scientific foundation by denying the existence of buds in the latter. At this time he based his classification, like Caesalpinus, chiefly upon the fruit, and he distinguished several natural groups, such as the grasses, Labiatae, Umbelliferae and Papilionaceae.

The classification of the Methodus was extended and improved in the Historia plantarum, but was disfigured by a large class of Anomalae, to include forms that the other orders did not easily admit, and by the separation of the cereals from other grasses. This vast book enumerates and describes all the plants known to the author or described by his predecessors, to the number, according to Adanson, of 18,625 species. In the first volume a chapter De plantis in genere contains an account of all the anatomical and physiological knowledge of the time regarding plants, with the recent speculations and discoveries of Caesalpinus, Grew, Malpighi and Jung; and Cuvier and Dupetit Thouars, declaring that it was this chapter which gave acceptance and authority to these authors works, say that the best monument that could be erected to the memory of Ray would be the republication of this part of his work separately. The Stirpium Europaearum extra Britannias nascentium Sylloge (1694) is a much amplified edition of the catalogue of plants collected on his own European tour. In the preface to this book he first clearly admitted the doctrine of the sexuality of plants, which, however, he had no share in establishing. Here also begins his long controversy with August Bachmann (Augustus Quirinus Rivinus) which chiefly turned upon Ray's indefensible separation of ligneous, from herbaceous plants, and also upon what he conceived to be the misleading reliance that Rivinus placed on the characters of the corolla. But in the second edition of his Methodus (1703) he followed Rivinus and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in taking the flower instead of the fruit as his basis of classification: he was no longer a fructicist but a corollist.

Besides editing his friend Francis Willughby's books, Ray wrote several zoological works of his own, including Synopsis methodica Animalium Quadrupedum et Serpentini Generis (1693), that is to say, both mammals and reptiles, and Synopsis methodica Avium et Piscium (1713); the latter was published posthumously, as was also the more important Historia Insectorum, which embodied a great mass of Willughbys notes.

Most of Ray's minor works were the outcome of his faculty for carefully amassing facts; for instance, his Collection of English Proverbs (1670), his Collection of Out-of-the-way English Words (1674), his Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages (1693), and his Dictionariolum trilingue (1675, 5th edition as Nomenclator classicus, 1706). The last was written for the use of Willughby's sons, his pupils; it passed through many editions, and is still useful for its careful identifications of plants and animals mentioned by Greek and Latin writers. But Ray's influence and reputation have depended largely upon his two books entitled The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), and Miscellaneous Discourses concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World (1692). The latter includes three essays on The Primitive Chaos and Creation of the World, The General Deluge, its Causes and Effects, and The Dissolution of the World and Future Conflagrations. The germ of these works was contained in sermons preached long before in Cambridge. Both books obtained immediate popularity, and the former, at least, was translated into several languages. In The Wisdom of God Ray recites innumerable examples of the perfection of organic mechanism, the multitude and variety of living creatures, the minuteness and usefulness of their parts, and many, if not most, of the familiar examples of purposive adaptation and design in nature were suggested by him, such as the structure of the eye, the hollowness of the bones, the camel's stomach and the hedgehog's armour.


The standard botanical author abbreviation Ray is applied to species he described.

In 1844, the Ray Society [1] was founded, named after John Ray, and has since published over 160 books on natural history.

In 1986, to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Ray's Historia Plantarum, there was a celebration of Ray's legacy in Braintree. A "John Ray Gallery" was opened in the Braintree Museum. The scientific society at his old college is named the "John Ray Society" after him.


  • Charles E. Raven (1950), John Ray: Naturalist: His Life and Works
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • The John Ray Initiative: connecting Environment and Christianity
  • [2]
  • A preliminary English translation of John Ray's Methodus plantarum nova (1682)
  • A preliminary English translation of John Ray's Dissertatio de variis methodis
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Ray". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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