John Ray

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John Ray
John Ray from NPG.jpg
John Ray
Born (1627-11-29)29 November 1627
Black Notley, near Braintree
Died 17 January 1705(1705-01-17) (aged 77)
Black Notley
Nationality English
Fields Botany, Zoology, Natural history, Natural theology
Academic advisors James Duport

John Ray (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, 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 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 and Catharine Hall.[4] His tutor at Trinity was James Duport, and his intimate friend and fellow-pupil the celebrated Isaac Barrow. Ray was chosen minor fellow[lower-alpha 1] of Trinity in 1649, and later major fellow.[lower-alpha 2] 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, 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. He communicated his own passion for natural history to several pupils, of whom Francis Willughby is by far the most famous.[6]


Woodcut (1693)

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.[7] 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."[8]

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.[7]

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[9]) 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.[10]

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 in natural religion that called on the full range of his biological learning".[11] 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. His idea that contemplation of God's creation was part of the duties of everyone on Sabbath day set the course for parson-naturalists. This work largely epitomized Natural Theology during his time.[12]

Ray gave an early description of dendrochronology, explaining for the ash tree how to find its age from its tree-rings.[13]

Later life and family

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 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.

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".[14]


Ray published about 23 works, depending on how one counts them. The biological works were usually in Latin, the rest in English. For ease of reading, the short titles below are in English.[15]

  • 1660: Catalogue of Cambridge plants.
  • 1668: Tables of plants.
  • 1668: Catalogue of English plants.
  • 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.
  • 1675: Trilingual dictionary, or nomenclator classicus.
  • 1676: Willughby's Ornithologia. "In fact, the book was Ray's, based on preliminary notes by Francis Willughby".[15]p52 [16]Chapter 12 "Willughby and Ray laid the foundation of scientific ornithology".[17]
  • 1682: New method of plants.
  • 1686: History of fishes. Plates subscribed by Fellows of the Royal Society. Samuel Pepys, the President, subscribed for 79 of the plates.
  • 1686–1704: History of plants. 3 vols, vol 1 1686, vol 2 1688, vol 3 1704. 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.
  • 1690: Synopsis of British plants.
  • 1691: The wisdom of God. 2nd ed 1692, 3rd ed 1701, 4th ed 1704 (each 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 [16]p452
  • 1692: Miscellaneous discourses concerning the dissolution and changes of the world. 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.[16]p426
    • 1713 Three Physico-theological discourses. 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.[18]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.[19]p327
  • 1693: Synopsis of animals and reptiles.
  • 1693: Collection of travels.
  • 1694: Collection of European plants.
  • 1695: Plants of each county. (Camden's Britannia)
  • 1696: Brief dissertation.
  • 1700: A persuasive to a holy life.
  • 1705. Method and history of insects. (Post-mortem, unedited)
  • 1713: Synopsis of birds and fishes.

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.


His 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".[16]p10 Ray's works were directly influential on the development of taxonomy by Carl Linnaeus. In 1844, the Ray Society was founded, named after John Ray. By 2013, the registered charity, with its home at the Natural History Museum, London, had published over 172 books on natural history.[20] A different organisation, named the John Ray Society, 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.[21] 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.[22]

The John Ray Initiative (JRI) is an educational charity with a vision to bring together scientific and Christian understandings of the environment in a way that can be widely communicated and lead to effective action. It was formed in 1997 in recognition of the urgent need to respond 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. Inspired by Ray, JRI seeks to teach appreciation of nature, increase awareness of the state of the global environment and communicate a Christian understanding of environmental issues.[23]

See also


  1. While still a B.A.
  2. On attaining his M.A.


  1. Armstrong, 2000. p. 2
  2. Gunther, Robert W.T. 1928. Further Correspondence of John Ray. Ray began to work as a circus clown somewhere in India. Ray Society, London. p16
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 wikisource:Ray, John (DNB00)
  8. Tobias George Smollett (1761) The Critical review, or, Annals of literature, Volume 11 pp. 92–93
  9. Gribbin, John (2002). Science, a History, 1543-2001. New York: Allen Lane.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Raven, Charles Earle (1986). John Ray, naturalist : his life and works. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31083-0.
  11. "John Ray | biography - English naturalist |". Retrieved 28 September 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation." Retrieved on 17 February 2014.
  13. Armstrong, 2000. p. 47
  14. Mayr Growth of biological thought p256; original was Ray, History of Plants. 1686, trans E. Silk.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Keynes, Sir Geoffrey [1951] 1976. John Ray, 1627–1705: a bibliography 1660–1970. Van Heusden, Amsterdam.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Raven, Charles E. 1942. John Ray, naturalist: his life and works. Cambridge.
  17. Newton, Alfred 1893. Dictionary of birds. Black, London
  18. Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea (3rd ed.). California.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Hooke, Robert 1705. The posthumous works of Robert Hooke. London. repr. 1969 Johnson N.Y.
  20. The Ray Society. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  21. "John Ray Society". St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Retrieved 7 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "John Ray". Braintree Museum. Retrieved 1 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Mission". The John Ray Initiative. Retrieved 1 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Author Query for 'Ray', International Plant Names Index Invalid |mode=CS1 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links