Ray, John (or Wray, 1627–1705)

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RAY, JOHN (or Wray, 16271705)

RAY, JOHN (or Wray, 16271705), British natural historian and natural philosopher. The son of a blacksmith, John Ray was born in Black Notley, Essex. He received his early education at the Braintree grammar school and was admitted to Catherine Hall at Cambridge University in 1644. In 1646 Ray transferred to Trinity College, from which he graduated with bachelor's (1648) and master's (1651) degrees; he was elected a fellow of the college (16491662). Ray, who was ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England (1660), resigned his fellowship in 1662 rather than take the oaths required by the Act of Uniformity. In 1667, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and continued his beloved studies of natural history through the generosity of his friend and patron, Francis Willughby (16351672).

Sometimes called the "father of natural history," Ray was the most influential natural historian of early modern Britain. He was a leader in the establishment of an expert community of naturalists who had as their central aim the firsthand observation of creation and its systematic organization. Through his efforts, a technical vocabulary for communicating the increasingly specialized material for standardized plant descriptions was stabilized, and many of these terms are still used in botany. An array of observational practices, methodological techniques, and textual protocols were also introduced by Ray and became culturally dominant within the discipline.

Ray authored or edited numerous books that cover the full spectrum of natural history. However, it is as a botanist that he is best remembered; his three-volume Historia Plantarum (16861704) and his Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum (1690) remained standard botanical texts in Britain for much of the eighteenth century. In his plant taxonomy, Ray sought to define obviously natural groups of species and to classify them according to their maximum natural affinities. Accordingly, members of any two groups of plants showing a high degree of similarity in an array of physical characteristics would be assumed to be related and would be grouped together. His first formal statement of plant classification, the Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682), assigned taxonomic standing to the number of seed leaves produced by the embryo, providing the foundation to distinguish the major classes of flowering plants into monocotyledons and dicotyledons. This innovation was adopted by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu in the Genera Plantarum (1789), which gradually replaced the artificial classification system of Linnaeus.

Ray's popular and frequently reprinted Wisdom of God Manifest in the Works of Creation (1691) and his Miscellaneous Discourses concerning the Dissolution of the World (1692) are paradigmatic examples of British natural theology. Founding these on evidence drawn from his experience of natural history, Ray sought to provide rational arguments for the existence of God and to demonstrate God's providential activity in the world. Ray's natural theological works also served to publicize contemporary views on such controversial topics as spontaneous generation and the organic nature of fossils, which had theological implications as well as scientific importance in the early modern period. Ray's natural theology ultimately made the study of natural history an acceptable and pious practice for Anglican gentlemen and for Anglican divines.

See also Botany ; Church of England ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Natural History .


Primary Sources

Ray, John. Historia Plantarum. London, Vol. I, 1686; Vol. II, 1688; Vol. III, 1704.

. Methodus Plantarum Emendata et Aucta. London, 1703.

. Methodus Plantarum Nova Brevitatis et Perspicuitatis causa Synoptice in Tabulis Exhibita. London, 1682.

. Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World. [Later editions entitled Three Physico-Theological Discourses. ] London, 1692.

. Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum. London, 1690; 2nd ed., 1696; 3rd. ed. 1724.

. The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. London, 1691.

Willughby, Francis. Francisci Willugbeii Armig. de Historia Piscium. 2 vols. Oxford, 1686.

. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton. London, 1678.

Secondary Sources

Cain, A. J. "John Ray on 'Accidents."' Archives of Natural History 23 (1996): 343368.

Gillespie, Neal C. "Natural History, Natural Theology and Social Order: John Ray and the 'Newtonian Ideology."' Journal of the History of Biology 20 (1987): 149.

Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. John Ray, 16721705: A Bibliography, 16601970: A Descriptive Bibliography of the Works of John Ray, English Naturalist, Philologist and Theologian, with Introductions, Annotations, Various Indexes. Amsterdam, 1976.

McMahon, Susan. "John Ray (16271705) and the Act of Uniformity 1662." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 54 (2000): 153178.

Raven, Charles R. John Ray: Naturalist. His Life and His Works. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1950; reprinted 1986.

Susan McMahon