John Ray

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John Ray
John Ray from NPG.jpg
John Ray
Born (1627-11-29)29 November 1627
Died 17 January 1705(1705-01-17) (aged 77)
Black Notley
Nationality English
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge St Catharine's College, Cambridge
Scientific career
Fields Botany, Zoology, Natural history, Natural theology
Academic advisors James Duport
Author abbrev. (botany) Ray
John Ray by Roubiliac, British Museum

John Ray FRS (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) was an English naturalist widely regarded as one of the earliest of the English parson-naturalists.[1] Until 1670, he wrote his name as John Wray. From then on, he used 'Ray', after "having ascertained that such had been the practice of his family before him".[2]

He published important works on botany, zoology, 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[further explanation needed], and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation. He was the first to give a biological definition of the term species.[3]


Early life

John Ray's birthplace in Black Notley, Essex
Blue plaque to John Ray

John Ray was born in the village of Black Notley in Essex. He is said to have been born in the smithy, his father having been the village blacksmith. He was sent at the age of sixteen to Cambridge University: studying at Trinity College.[4] His tutor at Trinity was James Duport, and his intimate friend and fellow-pupil the celebrated Isaac Barrow. Ray was chosen minor fellow[a] of Trinity in 1649, and later major fellow.[b] He held many college offices, becoming successively lecturer in Greek (1651), mathematics (1653), and humanity (1655), praelector (1657), frias (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, long before he took holy orders on 23 December 1660. Among these sermons were his discourses on The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the creation,[5] and Deluge and Dissolution of the World. Ray was also highly regarded as a tutor and he communicated his own passion for natural history to several pupils. It has been generally asserted that Willughby was Ray's pupil at Cambridge, but what little evidence exists on the matter is rather against this supposition. [6]

Later life and family

After leaving Cambridge in 1662 he spent some time travelling both in Britain and the continent.[7] In 1673, Ray married Margaret Oakley of Launton; in 1676 he went to Middleton Hall near Tamworth, and in 1677 to Falborne (or Faulkbourne) Hall in Essex. Finally, in 1679, he removed to his birthplace at Black Notley, where he afterwards remained. His life there was quiet and uneventful, although he had poor health, including chronic sores. Ray kept writing books and corresponded widely on scientific matters. He lived, in spite of his infirmities, to the age of seventy-seven, dying at Black Notley. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul where there is a memorial to him.

Memorial to John Ray in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Black Notley
Close-up of memorial to John Ray


Woodcut (1693)

At Cambridge, Ray spent much of his time in the study of natural history, a subject which would occupy him for most of his life.[7] When Ray found himself unable to subscribe as required by the ‘Bartholomew Act’ of 1662 he, along with 13 other college fellows, resigned his fellowship on 24 August 1662 rather than swear to the declaration that the Solemn League and Covenant was not binding on those who had taken it.[8] Tobias Smollett quoted the reasoning given in the biography of Ray by William Derham:

"The reason of his refusal was not (says his biographer) 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 say, for those that had taken the oath, that no obligation lay upon them, but feared there might."[9]

His religious views were generally in accord with those imposed under the restoration of Charles II of England, and (though technically a nonconformist) he continued as a layman in the Established Church of England.[8]

From this time onwards he seems to have depended chiefly on the bounty of his pupil Francis Willughby, who made Ray his constant companion while he lived. Willughby arranged that after his death, Ray would have 6 shillings a year for educating Willughby's two sons.

In the spring of 1663 Ray started together with Willughby and two other pupils (Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon[10]) 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 for Ray to edit; while Ray used the botanical collections for the groundwork of his Methodus plantarum 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 formed the basis for later English floras.

In 1667 Ray was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1669 he and Willughby published a paper on Experiments concerning the Motion of Sap in Trees. In 1671, he presented the research of Francis Jessop on formic acid to the Royal Society.[11]

In the 1690s, he published three volumes on religion—the most popular being The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), an essay describing evidence that all in nature and space is God's creation as in Bible is affirmed. In this volume, he moved on from the naming and cataloguing of species like his successor Carl Linnaeus. Instead, Ray considered species' lives and how nature worked as a whole, giving facts that are arguments for God's will expressed in His creation of all 'visible and invisible' (Colossians 1:16). Ray gave an early description of dendrochronology, explaining for the ash tree how to find its age from its tree-rings.[12]

Ray's definition of species

Ray was the first person to produce a biological definition of species, in his 1686 History of Plants:

"... no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species... Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa".[13]

System of classification

As outlined in his Historia Plantarum (1685–1703):[14]


Ray published about 23 works, depending on how they are counted. The biological works were usually in Latin, the rest in English.[15] His first publication, while at Cambridge, was the Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (1660), followed by many works, botanical, zoological,theological and literary.[7]

List of selected publications

  • 1660: Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (Catalogue of Cambridge plants)
  • 1668: Tables of plants.
  • Ray, John (1677) [1668]. Catalogus plantarum Angliae, et insularum adjacentium: tum indigenas, tum in agris passim cultas complectens. In quo praeter synonyma necessaria, facultates quoque summatim traduntur, unà cum observationibus & experimentis novis medicis & physics [Catalogue of English plants] (in Latin) (2nd ed.). London: A Clark.
  • 1670: Collection of English proverbs.
  • 1673: Observations in the Low Countries and Catalogue of plants not native to England.
  • 1674: Collection of English words not generally used.
  • Ray, John (1674). A discourse on the seeds of plants. pp. 162–169., in Birch (1757)
  • 1675: Trilingual dictionary, or nomenclator classicus.
  • 1676: Willughby's Ornithologia.[c]
  • Ray, John (1682). Methodus plantarum nova: brevitatis & perspicuitatis causa synoptice in tabulis exhibita, cum notis generum tum summorum tum subalternorum characteristicis, observationibus nonnullis de seminibus plantarum & indice copioso [New method of plants] (in Latin). London: Faithorne & Kersey.
    • English translation by Stephen Nimis
  • 1686: History of fishes.[d]
  • 1686–1704: Historia plantarum species [History of plants]. London:Clark 3 vols;
    • Vol 1 1686, Vol 2 1688, Vol 3 1704 (in Latin)[e]
  • Ray, John (1690). Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum: in qua tum notae generum characteristicae traduntur, tum species singulae breviter describuntur: ducentae quinquaginta plus minus novae species partim suis locis inseruntur, partim in appendice seorsim exhibentur : cum indice & virium epitome [Synopsis of British plants] (in Latin). London: Sam. Smith.
    • 2nd ed 1696
  • 1691: The wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation 7th ed. 2nd ed 1692, 3rd ed 1701, 4th ed 1704, 7th ed 1717[f]
  • 1692: Miscellaneous discourses concerning the dissolution and changes of the world[g]
  • 1693: Synopsis of animals and reptiles.
  • 1693: Collection of travels.
  • 1694: Collection of European plants.
  • 1695: Plants of each county. (Camden's Britannia)
  • Ray, John (1696). De Variis Plantarum Methodis Dissertatio Brevis [Brief dissertation] (in Latin). London: Smith & Walford.
    • English translation by Stephen Nimis
  • 1700: A persuasive to a holy life.
  • Ray, John (1703). Methodus plantarum emendata et aucta: In quãa notae maxime characteristicae exhibentur, quibus stirpium genera tum summa, tum infima cognoscuntur & áa se mutuo dignoscuntur, non necessariis omissis. Accedit methodus graminum, juncorum et cyperorum specialis (in Latin). London: Smith & Walford.
  • 1705. Method and history of insects
  • 1713: Synopsis methodica avium & piscium: opus posthumum (Synopsis of birds and fishes), in Latin. William Innys, London vol. 1: Avium vol. 2: Piscium
  • 1713 Three Physico-theological discourses[h]
  • Ray, John (1724) [1690]. Dillenius, Johann Jacob, ed. Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum: in qua tum notae generum characteristicae traduntur, tum species singulae breviter describuntur: ducentae quinquaginta plus minus novae species partim suis locis inseruntur, partim in appendice seorsim exhibentur: cum indice & virium epitome (editio tertia multis locis emendata, & quadringentis quinquaginta circiter speciebus noviter detectis aucta ) [Synopsis of British plants] (in Latin) (3rd ed.). London: Gulielmi & Joaniis Innys.

Libraries holding Ray's works

Including the various editions, there are 172 works of Ray, of which most are rare. The only libraries with substantial holdings are all in England.[15]p153 The list in order of holdings is:

The British Library, Euston, London. Holds over 80 of the editions.
The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
The University of Cambridge Library.
Library of Trinity College Cambridge.
The Natural History Museum Library, South Kensington, London.
The John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Deansgate, Manchester
The Sobrang Bayabas, University of Bayabas


Ray's biographer, Charles Raven, commented that "Ray sweeps away the litter of mythology and fable... and always insists upon accuracy of observation and description and the testing of every new discovery".[11]p10 Ray's works were directly influential on the development of taxonomy by Carl Linnaeus.

The Ray Society, named after John Ray, was founded in 1844. It is a scientific text publication society and registered charity, based at the Natural History Museum, London, which exists to publish books on natural history, with particular (but not exclusive) reference to the flora and fauna of the British Isles. As of 2017, the Society had published 179 volumes.[19]

The John Ray Society (a separate organisation) is the Natural Sciences Society at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. It organises a programme of events of interest to science students in the college.[20]

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, Essex. A "John Ray Gallery" was opened in the Braintree Museum.[21]

The John Ray Initiative (JRI) is an educational charity that seeks to reconcile scientific and Christian understandings of the environment. It was formed in 1997 in response to the global environmental crisis and the challenges of sustainable development and environmental stewardship. John Ray's writings proclaimed God as creator whose wisdom is "manifest in the works of creation", and as redeemer of all things. JRI aims to teach appreciation of nature, increase awareness of the state of the global environment, and to promote a Christian understanding of environmental issues.[22]

See also


  1. ^ While still a B.A.
  2. ^ On attaining his M.A.
  3. ^ "In fact, the book was Ray's, based on preliminary notes by Francis Willughby".[15]p52[11]Chapter 12 "Willughby and Ray laid the foundation of scientific ornithology".[16]
  4. ^ Plates subscribed by Fellows of the Royal Society. Samuel Pepys, the President, subscribed for 79 of the plates.
  5. ^ The third volume lacked plates, so his assistant James Petiver published Petiver's Catalogue in parts, 1715–1764, with plates. The work on the first two volumes was supported by subscriptions from the President and Fellows of the Royal Society.
  6. ^ 7th ed. Printed by R. Harbin, for William Innys, at the Prince’s-Arms in St Paul’s Church Yard, London 1717. Each edition enlarged from the previous edition. This was his most popular work. It was in the vein later called natural theology, explaining the adaptation of living creatures as the work of God. It was heavily plagiarised by William Paley in his Natural theology of 1802.[15]p92[11]p452
  7. ^ This includes some important discussion of fossils. Ray insisted that fossils had once been alive, in opposition to his friends Martin Lister and Edward Llwyd. "These [fossils] were originally the shells and bones of living fishes and other animals bred in the sea". Raven commented that this was "The fullest and most enlightened treatment by an Englishman" of that time.[11]p426
  8. ^ This is the 3rd edition of Miscellaneous discourses, the last by Ray before his death, and delayed in publication. Its main importance is that Ray recanted his former acceptance of fossils, apparently because he was theologically troubled by the implications of extinction.[17]p37 Robert Hooke, like Nicolas Steno, was in no doubt about the biological origin of fossils. Hooke made the point that some fossils were no longer living, for example Ammonites: this was the source of Ray's concern.[18]p327


  1. ^ Armstrong, 2000. p. 2
  2. ^ Gunther, Robert W.T. 1928. Further Correspondence of John Ray. Ray Society, London. p. 16
  3. ^ Historia plantarum generalis, in the volume published in 1686, Tome I, Libr. I, Chap. XX, page 40 (Quoted in Mayr, Ernst. 1982. The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press: 256)
  4. ^ "Ray, John (RY644J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the Creation, Google Books
  6. ^ Mullens, W.H. (1909). "Some early British Ornithologists and their works. VII. John Ray (1627-1705) and Francis Willughby (1635-1672)" (PDF). British Birds. 2 (9): 290–300.
  7. ^ a b c Vines 1913.
  8. ^ a b wikisource:Ray, John (DNB00)
  9. ^ Tobias George Smollett (1761) The Critical review, or, Annals of literature, Volume 11 pp. 92–93
  10. ^ Gribbin, John (2002). Science, a History, 1543-2001. New York: Allen Lane.
  11. ^ a b c d e Raven 1950.
  12. ^ Armstrong, 2000. p. 47
  13. ^ Mayr Growth of biological thought p256; original was Ray, History of Plants. 1686, trans E. Silk.
  14. ^ Singh 2004, John Ray p. 302.
  15. ^ a b c d Keynes, Sir Geoffrey [1951] 1976. John Ray, 1627–1705: a bibliography 1660–1970. Van Heusden, Amsterdam.
  16. ^ Newton, Alfred 1893. Dictionary of birds. Black, London
  17. ^ Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea (3rd ed.). California.
  18. ^ Hooke, Robert 1705. The posthumous works of Robert Hooke. London. repr. 1969 Johnson N.Y.
  19. ^ "The Ray Society". Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  20. ^ "John Ray Society". St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  21. ^ "John Ray". Braintree Museum. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  22. ^ "Mission". The John Ray Initiative. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  23. ^ IPNI.  Ray.


Books and articles

  • Sachs, Julius von (1890) [1875]. Geschichte der Botanik vom 16. Jahrhundert bis 1860 [History of botany (1530-1860)]. translated by Henry E. F. Garnsey, revised by Isaac Bayley Balfour. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.30585. Retrieved 13 December 2015., see also History of botany (1530-1860) at Google Books
  • Mandelbrote, Scott. "Ray [formerly Wray], John (1627–1705), naturalist and theologian". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/23203. |access-date= requires |url= (help) (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Armstrong, Patrick (2000). The English Parson-naturalist: A Companionship Between Science and Religion. Gracewing. ISBN 978-0-85244-516-7.
  • Birch, Thomas, ed. (1757). The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge from Its First Rise, in which the Most Considerable of Those Papers Communicated to the Society, which Have Hitherto Not Been Published, are Inserted as a Supplement to the Philosophical Transactions, Volume 3. London: Millar.
  • Oliver, Francis W., ed. (1913). Makers of British Botany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pavord, Anna (2005). The naming of names the search for order in the world of plants. New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781596919655. Retrieved 18 February 2015. See also ebook 2010
  • Raven, Charles E. (1950) [1942]. John Ray, naturalist: his life and works (2nd ed.). Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521310833. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  • Raven, Charles E. (1947). English naturalists from Neckham to Ray: a study of the making if the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108016346.
  • Singh, Gurcharan (2004). Plant Systematics: An Integrated Approach (3 ed.). Science Publishers. ISBN 1578083516. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  • Thompson, Roger (July 1974). "Some newly discovered letters of John Ray". Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History. 7 (1): 111–123. doi:10.3366/jsbnh.1974.7.1.111.
  • Lankester, Edwin, ed. (1848). The Correspondence of John Ray: Consisting of Selections from the Philosophical Letters Published by Dr. Derham, and Original Letters of John Ray in the Collection of the British Museum. London: Ray Society. (also here at Biodiversity Heritage Library)
  • Vines, Sydney Howard. Robert Morison 1620–1683 and John Ray 1627–1705. pp. 8–43., in Oliver (1913)


External links

  • John Ray Biography (University of California Museum of Paleontology Berkeley)
  • The first biological species concept (Evolving Thoughts)
  • Memoir of John Ray by James Duncan
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • De Variis Plantarum Methodis Dissertatio Brevis at Europeana
  • John Ray and taxonomy. Kings College London
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography

John Ray Initiative

  • The John Ray Initiative: connecting Environment and Christianity
    • John Ray, by Professor Sam Berry
    • John Ray on plants

Note: This is a selected list of the more influential systems. There are many other systems, for instance a review of earlier systems, published by Lindley in his 1853 edition, and Dahlgren (1982). Examples include the works of Scopoli, Batsch and Grisebach.

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