John Ray

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(b. Black Notley, Essex, England, 29 November 1627; d. Black Notley, 17 January 1705)

natural history.

Ray may have acquired his interest in science during his early years at Black Notley, where his father, Roger Ray, was blacksmith and his mother, Elizabeth, attained local eminence for her skills as an amateur herbalist and medical practitioner. He acknowledged that he had been devoted to the study of botany since his earliest years (Catalogus . . . cantabrigiam …, preface). After attending the grammar school at Brain tree, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1644, graduating B.A. in 1648 and M.A. in 165!. An academic career unfolded smoothly during the Commonwealth and Protectorate; he was elected fellow of Trinity in 1649, and during the next decade he held college teaching positions in Greek, mathematics, and humanities, as well as other minor offices. This course was suddenly interrupted in 1662 with the Act of Uniformity. Ray refused to take the oath required by the Act and thus elected to sacrifice his fellowship and leave Cambridge.

Subsequently Ray’s work was supported by the generous patronage of his younger Cambridge contemporary Francis Willughby. For more than a decade, Willughby’s estates at Middleton Hall, Warwickshire, and Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, were the bases for Ray’s expeditions throughout Britain. Ray and Willughby became close collaborators, their most ambitious journey (1663–1666) being through the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, with short visits by Ray to Sicily and Malta. The return journey, through France and Switzerland, included a long stay in Montpellier, where Ray formed one of his main scientific friendships, with Martin Lister, who also was making a Continental tour.

Upon his return to England, Ray was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 7 November 1667; he very seldom attended the meetings, however, although some of his letters to Oldenburg were published in the Phylosophical Transactions. Upon Oldenburg’s death Ray was offered the secretaryship of the Society hut refused it, probably for a mixture of conscientious and temperamental reasons; he found an obscure existence most convenient for his work as a naturalist. The close partnership with Willughby ended with the latter’s death in 1672. In the same year Ray married Margaret Oakeley, a member of the household at Middleton Hall. With their four daughters they retired to Black Notley, where Ray spent the rest of his life engaged in prolific writing and correspondence.

Despite serious interest in natural history in Britain and aspirations to compose comprehensive floras and faunas, little had been achieved by Ray’s time. The partnership of Ray and Willughby attempted to meet these ambitions by composing a systema naturae based on firsthand observation, collaboration, and the critical use of authorities. This ambitious enterprise emerged early in their partnership, Ray undertaking to compose a historia plantarum, while Willughby agreed to study “birds, beasts, fishes and insects” (Derham, Memorials, p. 33). Their close association prevented strict compartmentalization, making it possible for Ray to take over the entire work after Willughby’s death.

Ray’s scientific apprenticeship occurred during the early phase of enthusiasm for experimental philosophy, which was reflected in an outburst of scientific activity at both Oxford and Cambridge. At Cambridge overriding influence was exerted by the Platonists, who provided the most important formative influence on Ray’s natural philosophy. He absorbed their deep religious motivation for the study of nature as a means to reveal the workings of God in His creation. Among the young Cambridge scholars Ray found many collaborators, including the anatomist Walter Needham. Their initial activities embraced the whole range of experimental natural philosophy, but comparative anatomy and botany emerged as Ray’s central preoccupations.

Ray’s interest in botany began after an illness in 1650. During country walks undertaken for recreation, he became interested in the precise study of the local flora. Soon he and his friends embarked on a systematic investigation of the flora of Cambridgeshire, establishing small botanical gardens at their colleges. The joint nature of this venture was underlined by the anonymous publication of the catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (1660). But there is no doubt that Ray was the prime contributor. His first publication created entirely new standards for the composition of British floras. The preface surveyed the defective English botanical literature, which, if comprehensive, was a derivative compilation; where it was more original, it was sketchy and incomplete. Ray looked to the Continent for more exalted standards, finding particular satisfaction in the work of Jean and Gaspard Bauhin, who provided him with the immediate model for the Cambridge catalog and a more genera! guide to the composition of the historia plantarum.

The main section of the Cambridge catalog followed Gaspard Bauhin’sCatalogus plantarum circa Basileam sponte nascentium … (Base!, 1622). Ray gave an alphabetical list of species, including descriptions of little-known species or problematical groups, as well as detailed consideration of nomenclature and localities. At many points he experienced difficulty in reconciling his observations with the descriptions and nomenclature of the standard authorities. On the whole he displayed great caution, resisting the temptation to multiply species, although some cases of variable flower color were subdivided unnecessarily (Raven, John Ray, pp. 93–94). Like other authors he was weak on nonflowering plants, trees, shrubs, and grasses; but whereas Bauhin had dealt only with wild species, Ray gave valuable information on cultivated varieties. The potato was introduced in the brief appendix which he published in 1663.

So successful was the Cambridge catalog that it was not supplanted until Babington’s Flora of Cambridgeshire (1860), which acknowledged that Ray had recognized 558 species. A broader dimension was added to the catalog by brief concluding essays on morphology and classification. Ray had obtained from Hartlib the manuscript of Joachim Jungius’ then unpublished Isagoge phytoscopica, which was recognized as sufficiently important for Ray to include a digest of its contents, giving definitions of the main plant parts. He also presented a brief system of classification derived from Jean Bauhin’s Historia plantarum universalis (1650–1651). Thus over a wide area, from etymology to classification, Ray’s first work gave indications of his later preoccupations.

No sooner was the Cambridge catalog completed than Ray began work on a Phytologia Britannica to replace the feeble British plant list of that title by William Howe (1650). Preparation for this work involved expeditions to most parts of Britain. during which he also collected materials for other works. The catalogus plantarum Angliae … (1 670) followed the same plan as his Cambridge catalog, with the addition of sections on pharmacology, a subject which had interested Ray since childhood. This material was gathered from a large number of sources and was assessed with Ray’s characteristic caution. The alphabetical list of species and localities demonstrated his extensive acquaintance with the British flora, and gave more attention to trees, mountain plants, and grasses than in his previous catalog.

The two catalogs mark the first phase of Ray’s botanical work. He then turned his attention to the wider issues of physiology, morphology, and taxonomy in a series of brief communications. An important step was the fulfillment of a request from John Wilkins to compose the tables of plants for the Essay Towards a Real character (166). This confronted Ray with the basic problems of classification, as well as imposing an arbitrary condition that taxonomic divisions be tripartite. Ray’s tables indicate a search for consistent new taxonomic principles. Although the results were not entirely satisfactory, his work scarcely deserved the strong censures of Robert Morison, the irascible Oxford botanist.

In response to a questionnaire from the Royal Society, Ray submitted four botanical papers, on the motion of sap, on germination, on specific differences, and on the number of species. In his work on germination he slightly antedated Malpighi in making the monocotyledon-dicotyledon distinction, which became fundamental to his ideas on taxonomy. Two papers were concerned with the crucial issue of evolving satisfactory criteria for the identification of species, in order to replace the inconsistent and ad hoc methods used by previous writers. Ray appealed for the use of a small range of invariable morphological characteristics, instead of features liable to wide variation, which would lead to unnecessary multiplication of species. Ray realized that many of the “species” then recognized had little permanence, and he believed on both Biblical and empirical grounds that the true species In nature were “fixed and determinate.” The essays presented to the Royal Society were published as a brief Latin work, Methodus plantarum (1682), with the intention of providing general principles for botanists attempting to define species and to arrive at a sound classification of the seemingly endless profusion of nature.

Ray came to agree with Cesalpino and Morison that the seed vessel was sufficiently invariable to provide the soundest basis for natural classification. Nevertheless he claimed that the petals, calyx, and leaf arrangement must also be taken into account. According to these priorities Ray opened his book with three sections expanding his paper on seeds, reemphasizing the monocotyledon-dicotyledon distinction as the guide to major taxonomic categories. The germination of various seeds was described in detail, using illustrations drawn from Malpighi’s Anatomia plantarum (1675–1679). The Methodus ended with two new sections. Part IV reverted to Ray’s early interest in Jungius, analyzing the flower into its Constituent parts, with reference to both structure and function. The distinction between simple and composite inflorescences was clearly recognized. Having clarified the structure of fruits, seeds, and flowers, in part V Ray described his own ideas on classification, which had been evolving since the publication of his Cambridge catalog. The influence of Bauhin was still apparent, hut many novel features were introduced. Herbs were given a tripartite classification into imperfect flowers (cryptogams), dicotyledons, and monocotyledons. This basic division was sound, as were many of the thirty-six “fami1y” groupings of dicotyledons. For example, emphasis on seed vessels brought the varied flower and inflorescence types of the Ranunculaceae into a single natural group. An unsatisfactory aspect of this classification was the treatment of trees and shrubs. Although it was recognized that these were arbitrary divisions, they were retained in deference to popular usage.

Sufficient time had now passed for Ray to feel it necessary to bring his work on the English flora up to date. A brief supplement, Fasciculus stirpium Britannicarum (1688), was a prelude to the full revision of the English catalog, Synopsis stirpium Britannicarum (1690), which included numerous additions, particularly of cryptogams and grasses, many collected by the young botanists in Ray’s circle. Medical notes, greatly shortened, were placed in an appendix. Like Ray’s other catalogs, this text was designed for use as a field guide. For larger flowering plants the Synopsis reached the scope of modern floras. Also, for the first time Ray dispensed with alphabetical order in favor of the classification outlined in his Methodus, another important step toward the form of later floras. The treatment of trees and shrubs remained anomalous and imperfect.

Other plant lists illustrate Ray’s continuing interest in taxonomic principles. Sylloge Europeanarum (1694) consisted primarily of European plant lists, but it was less systematic and detailed than complementary English lists. In a long preface Ray gave an extensive critique of the principles of classification adopted by A. Q. Bachmann (Rivinus), defending the use of a range of morphological criteria against Bachmann’s artificial system based on corolla types. Bachmann’s reply and a further rejoinder by Ray were published as an appendix to the second edition of Synopsis Britannicarum (1696). Again Ray defended the Methodus and gave a summary of the classification used in his Historia plant arum as an illustration of its practical applicability. A postscript was added to the Synopsis in reply to J. P. de Tournefort, whose Elemens de botanique (1694) had criticized Ray’s classification. Tournefort had such authority that Ray was prompted to compose a separate tract against him, Dissertatio de methodus (1696). He granted that a single obvious criterion for classification was desirable; but although writers from Cesalpino to Tournefort had shown the superiority of fruit characteristics, this method resulted in certain crucial anomalies. To reinforce his views still further, Ray completely revised the Methodus, which became Methodus emendata (1703), the final, clearest, and most satisfactory statement of his principles and system of classification.

Although Ray’s catalogs are his best-known writings, a series of works indicates his continual concern with the principles of taxonomy, his gradually evolving views being vigorously defended against the more influential followers of Cesalpino, This work provided the foundation for his magnum opus, the Historia plantarum (1686–1704), a 3,000-folio-page work designed to supplant the encyclopedic herbals of the brothers Bauhin. Its aim was to classify and list ail known plants, with the goal of being comprehensive for Europe. Its more difficult function was to integrate information about exotic floras, which had been subject to considerable attention during the century. Such histories were often begun but rarely completed, as witnessed by the work of Ray’s antagonist Morison. Furthermore, the rapid rate of discovery quickly rendered such works obsolete. Fully aware of these difficulties, Ray began the Historia with great confidence. It began with an extensive general botanical treatise covering certain subjects not previously considered in his writings. Ray displayed wide and critical reading over the whole field, and on many topics he presented extensive firsthand knowledge. This is well illustrated by the opening section, in which Jungius’ definition of a plant is adopted, including “lacking sensation” among its criteria. In order to retain this definition, it was necessary for Ray to overcome the anomaly of the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica, which had led to an increasingly popular doctrine of plant sensitivity. After a careful study of plant movement, Ray adopted a mechanism which could explain all movement mechanically, without recourse to the doctrine of sensitivity.

Ray derived his anatomy and morphology of the vegetative organs primarily from Grew and Malpighi, and gave considerable details of the floral parts, fruits, seeds, and germination in terms of their relevance to classification. He took a generally favorable attitude toward Grew’s theory that the stamens were the male sex organs. Considering the nature of species, Ray reemphasized the view that breeding true from seed was a necessary test of a natural species. His previously strong conviction about the fixity of species was slightly modified. Examination of many case histories convinced him that limited transmutation was possible. For classification the system developed in his Methodus was followed, as it had been in the more limited Synopsis of the British flora.

As in other writings, Ray embraced practical aspects of the subject, considering the techniques of propagation, seed sowing, and curing plant diseases. After this comprehensive introduction Ray commenced his systematic survey of the flora according to his taxonomic principles. The first, relatively short sections dealt with lower plants, which had become familiar to Ray only at a late stage in his career. He relied primarily on reports of other botanists for this section. In the books on flowering plants his surveys were most successful when dealing with clearly delimited families, or where generic differences were obvious. Herbaceous families formed the core of the two-volume work, trees appearing at the end of the second volume. This group was no longer neglected, and Ray even considered the numerous cultivated varieties of apple and pear.

Whatever the limitations, Ray attempted to carry out his scheme rigorously, taking no shortcuts. For each species, besides nomenclature and morphological description, he gave details of habitat, distribution, and medicinal uses. Illustration was completely abandoned. In previous herbals illustrations had been so defective and derivative that they were the source of considerable confusion. Ray probably recognized that adequate illustration of such a comprehensive treatise was beyond his technical and financial resources. The third, supplementary volume of the Historic published shortly before Ray’s death, attempted to synthesize the considerable botanical literature which had appeared since the publication of the original volumes. Ray compiled material from a wide range of sources, from descriptions of exotic floras to botanical garden catalogs from Amsterdam and Nuremberg. By this time he was entirely a compiler, although his experience as a field botanist greatly improved the quality of this work. The enormous size of the supplement indicates the difficulties involved in single-handed attempts to deal with the growing avalanche of botanical literature.

Apart from the tables on animals prepared for John Wilkins, Willughby died without publishing anything of his share of the systema naturae. He bequeathed to Ray miscellaneous notes which required considerable elaboration before publication was possible. Ray recognized an obligation to complete Willughby s survey of the animal kingdom in addition to his own enormous botanical undertakings. He had already served an apprenticeship in zoology at Cambridge and had assisted Willughby with the table of animals used by Wilkins. More important were the lists of English birds and fishes included in Ray’s Collection of English Words (1673). Although he published works on fishes and birds under Willughby’s name, Raven’s researches leave no doubt that Ray was primarily responsible for their composition.

Ornithology was the first topic completed by Ray (Omithologiae, 1676). English ornithology had been given an auspicious inception by William Turner in the sixteenth century; but little more was achieved, as witnessed by the inadequate lists compiled by Merret and Charleton, Ray’s contemporaries. Throughout his travels Ray had made ornithological notes; subsequently such naturalists as Sir Thomas Browne sent him notes on the birds of their localities. Ray and Willughby accounted for at least 230 descriptions in Ornithologia; but in order to increase comprehensiveness, it was necessary to draw upon Continental authorities for both text and illustrations. Hence the survey was very uneven in quality. An important feature of this work was Ray’s pioneering attempt to classify birds according to habitat and anatomy. As in plant taxonomy, he was suspicious of divisions based on single criteria. The basic groups were ecological—land and water birds. Land birds were divided according to beak characteristics, while water birds were placed in two groups, waders and swimmers. Lower categories were decided by diet or beak or foot characteristics. Ray’s descriptions concentrated on plumage, with notes on variation according to age or sex; occasionally behavior patterns were described.

Ray’s next project was completion of the Historia piscium (1686), a task analogous to the ornithology. It is probable that Willughby left relatively little material; but Ray’s travels had furnished considerable information, including descriptions of Mediterranean fishes. Appended to his Collection of English Words were extensive lists of English freshwater and marine fish. He had also contributed two relevant papers to the Philosophical Transactions: an account of the dissection of a porpoise (1671) and considerations of the function and anatomy of swim bladders (1675). One of Ray’s main problems in completing the Historia piscium was incorporating the considerable body of ichthyological literature which had been accumulating since the Renaissance. As in other treatises, Ray began with introductory chapters on the definition, anatomy, physiology, and classification of fish. Cetaceans were included despite recognition of their mammalian affinities, but invertebrate aquatic creatures were omitted. At the highest level Aristotle’s classification was adopted, fin structure providing the main criterion for designating the minor divisions. An appealing feature of this book is the illustrations, which were more numerous than in any of his other works, because of the generous financial assistance from members of the Royal Society.

With the good progress of this zoological work, Ray was encouraged by Tancred Robinson to draw his material into a comprehensive systema naturae, summarizing the contents of longer treatises along the lines of the botanical Synopsis. The systema naturae was undertaken somewhat reluctantly by Ray, the manuscripts on fishes and birds lying idle until published posthumously by Derham as Synopsisavium et piscium (1713). Not only were descriptions condensed and slight emendations of the classification made, but a considerable number of new species, primarily of birds, were included. This supports the general impression that the work on fishes was undertaken out of duty rather than enthusiasm.

The Synopsis animalium quadrupedum et serpentini (1693) was published promptly, for no general histories of these groups were undertaken by Ray. Here the debt to Willughby was minimal, thus vindicating Ray’s abilities as an anatomist and zoologist. Introductory essays dealt with general issues; the Cartesians were attacked for accepting animal automatism; Redi was supported for his opposition to spontaneous generation; the Platonist doctrine of Plastic Spirit was adopted and the treatment of embryology inclined toward ovism. Classification was the outstanding part of the introduction. Aristotle’s division into “blooded” and “bloodless” was maintained; the former were divided according to respiratory mechanism, cetaceans being firmly placed with the mammals. For the minor divisions foot types were basic, but reference was also made to internal anatomy and general morphology. Classification of the invertebrates was unsatisfactory, but at least Ray attempted to avoid large amorphous groups.

The culmination of Ray’s zoological work was the study of invertebrates, which resulted in his posthumous Historia insectorum (1710). On this topic Ray was dealing with virtually virgin territory. The only previous substantial work on the subject was produced a century before by the English naturalist Thomas Moffett. But the potentialities of entomology in particular had been displayed in Ray’s generation by the microscopists and the detailed study of spiders made by Ray’s friend Lister (1678). Ray and Willughby had made parallel investigations into gall insects that had been reported in a series of letters to the Philosophical Transactions. However, botanical work prevented Ray from beginning serious work on the history of lower animals until 1690, but the labor was pleasant and the helpers numerous. Despite great progress the text was incomplete at his death; and in the absence of any willing editor, it was published as Ray left it, with the addition of a scheme of classification previously published as Methodus insectorum (1705). Although it was ostensibly concerned with all “bloodless” creatures, only insects were considered in detail. More specifically, only moths, butterflies, bees, wasps, and ichneumon flies were described in the comprehensive form intended by Ray. On each of these groups Ray considerably improved on Moffett, whose bias lay in a similar direction.

As indicated above, most of Ray’s publications were concerned directly with taxonomy. He was, however, responsible for some more general works, many of which had considerable celebrity. Most had an obvious relationship to his taxonomic labors. Observations Topographical and Physiological (1673), an account of his Continental journeys, was the vehicle for the “Catalogue of Foreign Plants.” Likewise, Ray’s Collection of English Words (1673), of lasting interest for its dialect records, contained lists of English fishes and birds, as well as accounts of mining and industrial practices. The long travel diary of Rauwolf, and a number of other brief accounts of the Middle East, were published as A Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages (1693), in order to draw attention to the botanical observations contained in these writings.

None of these works compared in influence or significance with the two theologically oriented books, Physico-Theological Discourses and The Wisdom of God. The intensity of Ray’s conviction that science served a religious end is apparent from the preface to the Cambridge catalog, in which he declared, “There is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.” Accordingly, his students were admonished to cultivate natural history as a means to mental satisfaction and bodily exercise. In the preface to the ornithology the potential religious value of the study of birds was proffered as his reason for taking up the incomplete work of Willughby. For Ray, following the Platonists’ lead, it was necessary to evolve a system of nature which would reinforce man’s conviction of the power of providence and guarantee against the incursions of materialism.

Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World (1692), revised and entitled Three Physico-Theological Discourses within a year, exposed Ray’s considerable knowledge of paleontology and geology. On the much-debated issue of “formed stones,” he supported the view that they were generally organic remains, one of the results of divine intervention at the Deluge. In an attempt to explain the placing of fossils, John Woodward and William Whiston had evolved speculative cosmogonies giving natural explanations for the Deluge. Consideration of the Deluge and Creation, in an attempt to arrive at scientific theories reconcilable with the Scriptures, was the dominant feature of the Discourses.

Even more popular and general was The Wisdom of God (1691), a phrase that often appears in Ray’s prefaces. This work went through four editions, greatly expanded and revised by Ray himself. After his death its popularity continued, and it formed the model for genre for theology literature. Ray’s own text was derived from notes used at Cambridge that were heavily indebted to the Cambridge Plationists, especially More and Cudworth in general conception and philosophical outlook. But in the systematic survey of nature, no author was better equipped than Ray. The text, beginning with the solar system, passing through the theory of matter, geology, and the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and ending with a detailed study of human anatomy and physiology, gave Ray an ideal opportunity to display his scientific virtuosity. The great bulk of the material was drawn from his own experience, which extended from geology to anatomy, a spectrum which could be matched by few scientists and none of his imitators. The Wisdom of God provided an epitome of his scientific achievement in the religious perspective, which furnished Ray’s basic motivation. For Ray, to be a naturalist was to acknowledge that “Divinity is my profession”(Further Correspondence,p. 163).


I. Original Works. For a complete list of Ray’s works, see G. L. Keynes, John Ray, a Bibliography(London, 1951). Ray’s major works are Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium(Cambridge, 1660),; Appendix ad catalogum plantarum… (Cambridge, 1663); Catalogus plantarum Angliae et insularum adjacentium(London, 1670; 2nd ed., 1677); Francisci Willughbeii … ornithologiae(London, 1676; English ed., 1678); Methodus plantarum(London, 1682), rev. ed., Methodous emendata (London, 1703); Historia piscium(Oxford, 1686), written with willughby; Historia plantarum, 3 vols. (London, 1686–1704); Synopsis methodican stirpium Britannicarum(London,1690; 2nd ed., 1696; 3rd ed., 1724, with facs. repr., London,1973); The Wisdom of God(London, 1691; enl. eds.m, 1692, 1701,1704); Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World(London, 1692), rev. as Three Physico-Theological Discourses(1693, 1713); Synopsis antimalium quadrupedum et serpentini (London, 1693); Historia insectorum(London, 1710); and Synopsis avium er piscium(London, 1713). Contributions to the Royal Society are listed by Keynes.

Various ediors hace assembled poor eds. of Ray’s correspondence: Philosophical Letters. W. Derharm, ed. (London, 1718) Correspondence of John Ray,E. Lankester, ed. (London, 1848); and Further Correspondence, R. T. Gunther, ed. (London, 1928).

II. Secondary Literature. The main older source is W. Derham, Select Remains(London, 1760),repr. as Memorials of John Ray (London, 1846). Also valuable is R. Pulteney, Sketches of the Progress of Botany,1 (London, 1790), 189–281. All other sources are surpassed by C. E. Raven,John Ray His Life and Works(Cambridge, 1942; 2nd ed., with minor addition, 1950).A useful study of Ray’s work on plant taxtonomy is D. C. Gunawardena, “Stdies in the Biological Works of John Ray” (unpub, M. Sc. diss., Univ. of London, 1932). On this subject see Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum,” introduction to the facs. ed. of the 3rd. ed. of Synopsis methodica… (1973).

Charles Webster

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John Ray

The English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) was an early botanical and zoological systematist who divided plants into monocotyledons and dicotyledons.

John Ray was born on Nov. 29, 1627, at Black Notley, Essex, where his father was the village blacksmith. At the age of 16 he entered Catharine Hall at Cambridge. In 1646 he transferred to Trinity College, where he graduated and was elected a fellow in 1649.

Early Exploration and Writing

In 1650 Ray fell ill, and, as he himself recounted, this led to a deepening of his interest in botany: "I had been ill, physically and mentally, and had to rest from more serious study and so could ride or walk. There was leisure to contemplate by the way what lay constantly before the eyes and were so often trodden thoughtlessly underfoot, the various beauty of plants, the cunning craftsmanship of nature." For 6 years Ray studied the literature, explored the countryside around Cambridge, and grew plants in the garden by his room in college. Only then was he able to start on his book, which was finished in 1659 and called Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (Cambridge Catalogue). This small, unpretentious pocketbook contained a great store of information and learning and was destined to initiate a new era in British botany.

During the writing of the Cambridge Catalogue, Ray had the encouragement of several friends at Cambridge, one of whom was Francis Willughby. In 1659, before the Cambridge Catalogue had been published, he had written to Willughby proposing a much more ambitious project: a complete British flora. However, life at Cambridge was becoming difficult for Ray because of religious controversies. In 1660 he was ordained as a priest, according to the requirements of the college statutes, but in 1662 he refused to accept the Act of Uniformity, resigned his offices in the college, and returned to his native village. Because of his integrity he was now unemployed, cut off forever from the resources of the university, and yet he was free; all he asked was that his friends should not desert him.

Earlier in 1662 Ray had visited Wales with Willughby, and the journey deepened their friendship. Both shared the conviction that, for the naturalist, museum studies and the literature must be subordinate to firsthand knowledge of the organism in its wild environment and that classification must take into account the way of life, the function as well as the structure.

For 3 years (1663-1666) Ray, Willughby, and two other friends traveled throughout Europe, studying and recording the flora and fauna. Ray's journeys gave him the data for his lifework and also introduced him to the centers of learning in Europe. The fruit of these researches was harvested at intervals during the next 30 years in the series of volumes which helped to lay the foundations of botany and zoology. His tours in Britain had a more immediate sequel, for in 1670 he published the Catalogus plantarum Angliae et insularum adjacentium, which was a flora of the British Isles, modeled on his earlier Cambridge Catalogue. It contained a long section on the medicinal use of plants, which denounces astrology, alchemy, and witchcraft and is ruthless in its demands for evidence. In 1671 Ray was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Willughby died in 1672, and for the next 10 years Ray concentrated on preparing books based on Willughby's material; these were Ornithologia (1676) and Historia piscium (1686). In Ornithologia, 230 species of birds personally observed by the authors are described and classified: the book laid the foundations of scientific ornithology.

Biotic Classification Schemes

In 1673 Ray married a girl of 20 who was to bear him four daughters. The following year Ray sent a paper to the Royal Society which laid the foundation for his classification of plants. The paper, "A Discourse on the Seeds of Plants," distinguished between plants with a single seed leaf and those with two such leaves. A second paper by Ray, also sent to the Royal Society in 1674, laid down the definition of a species in terms of the structural qualities alone. This was a highly original approach which was to bear fruit later.

Ray's first serious essay in classification, the Methodus plantarum nova (1682), raises his observations on seed leaves (soon to be called cotyledons) to a principle of great importance. He states that "from the difference in seeds can be derived a general distinction of plants, a distinction in my judgment the first and by far the best of all—that is into those which have a seed plant with two leaves, and those whose seed plant is analogous to the adult." This is the division into dicotyledons and monocotyledons which all subsequent botanists have adopted.

Following the publication of the Methodus, Ray decided to apply the principles he had discovered to a large-scale study of all the plants of the world. This occupied him for the rest of his life and was published in three volumes: Historia generalis plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704), each of about 1,000 pages. The book described about 6,100 species which he knew himself, but it was handicapped in its general appeal by having been written in Latin and having no illustrations.

Still inspired by Willughby's interest in zoology, Ray wrote an important work on mammals and reptiles (Synopsis animalium quadrupedum et serpentini generis, 1693) in which he rejected Aristotle's classification and introduced the names ungulates (animals in which the toes are covered with horny hoofs) and unguiculates (animals in which the toes are bare but carry nails). In about 1690 Ray began to collect insects, mainly Lepidoptera. He recorded his observations on some 300 species in Historia insectorum (1710), which was never completed and was published posthumously.

One of Ray's most famous books, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, was first published in 1691. In it Ray turns from the preliminary task of identifying, describing, and classifying to that of interpreting the significance of physical and physiological processes and the relations between form and function. He not only drew attention to these fascinating subjects but argued that this was a proper exercise of man's faculties and a legitimate field for Christian inquiry. He died at Black Notley on Jan. 17, 1705.

Ray's greatness as a scientist lies in his refusal to concentrate upon the study of one part of an organism to the exclusion of the whole and in his refusal to supplement his observations by speculation. He not only saw the need for precise and ordered knowledge but was able to provide, by his personal observations, classifications which form the basis of much of modern botany and zoology.

Further Reading

A biography of Ray is Charles E. Raven, John Ray, Naturalist: His Life and Works (1942). Ray is discussed in Charles Singer, A History of Biology (1931; 3d ed. 1959). See also Geoffrey Keynes, John Ray: A Bibliography (1951).

Additional Sources

Keynes, Geoffrey, Sir, John Ray, 1627-1705: a bibliography, 1660-1970: a descriptive bibliography of the works of John Ray, English naturalist, philologist, and theologian, with introductions, annotations, various indexes, and a supplement of new entries, additions and corrections by the author, Amsterdam: G. Th. van Heusden, 1976.

Raven, Charles E. (Charles Earle), John Ray, naturalist: his life and works, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. □

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John Ray


British Botanist and Zoologist

Afounding figure in British botany and zoology, John Ray made extensive classifications of flowering and nonflowering plants and laid the groundwork for the field of taxonomy and other evolutionary studies. The seventeenth-century naturalist is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.

Ray was born on November 29, 1627, in the village of Black Notley, Essex, England. His father was a village blacksmith. Many speculate that Ray gained his love of plants from his mother, who was an herbalist. After studying at Cambridge and Trinity universities, Ray traveled throughout England and once to Europe to collect plants, animals, and rocks. He began to document his samples and established specimens in his college garden. The naturalist conducted experimental work in embryology and plant physiology and proved that the wood of a living tree conducts water. Ray's fascination with living and extinct organisms would eventually help make sense of the chaotic mass of names used by the other naturalists of his time.

During this time, Ray also studied for the priesthood. He lectured regularly about natural theology—the doctrine that God's wisdom and power could be understood by studying the natural world He created. Ray was ordained a minister in the Anglican Church in 1660 after years of delay caused by the English Civil War. Ray's formal recognition as a priest, however, was short-lived. During the war a manifesto for church reform had been drafted. England's new king was displeased with the Covenant and in 1662 demanded every minister to swear an oath condemning the reformation. Ray disobeyed the king's order. His defiance cost him his university post, his house, and his treasured botanic garden.

After the Reformation, Ray joined naturalist Francis Willughby (1635-1672) on an expedition to Wales. The pair agreed to undertake the huge task of documenting the complete natural history of all living things, with Ray responsible for the plant kingdom and Willughby the animal. A three-year tour of the European continent greatly extended Ray's knowledge of flora and fauna. After Willughby's sudden death in 1672, Ray completed his portion of their project.

Ray's research slowly began to bring order to the study of species. His method of classification would become a powerful tool in evolutionary studies. In 1660 Ray published his Catalogue of Cambridge Plants, his first systematic work on plants, birds, mammals, fish, and insects. Ray's goal of a natural system of classification inspired generations of systematists, including Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) and, eventually, Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Because he was a natural theologian, Ray spent his time investigating the relationship of an organism's form to function. Both Ray and Linnaeus searched for a natural system of classifying organisms that would reflect God's order of creation. But unlike Linnaeus, who used the floral reproductive organs as the basis for classification, Ray classified plants by their overall form and structure, including internal anatomy. He was the first to divide flowering plants into monocots and dicots. His insistence on the importance of lungs and cardiac structure laid the groundwork for the establishment of the mammalian class. Although a truly natural system of taxonomy would not be realized until the age of Darwin, Ray's system came closer than any of his contemporaries.

Ray's insight that fossils were the remains of living organisms was a significant advance over most other theories of his time. His ideas about the relationship of fossils and Earth's age would eventually be studied by generations of paleontologists.

Years of renowned research paved the way for Ray's induction into the newly formed Royal Society of London, one of the world's first scientific societies, in 1667. As poor health began to restrict his travels, Ray spent the last years of his life interacting with the leading scientists of his time, including zoologist Martin Lister and English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703).

After his death on January 17, 1705, at the age of 77, Ray's legacy endured. His book Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium was posthumously published in 1713, and natural theology remained an influential doctrine for well over a century.


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Ray, John (1627-1705)

English naturalist

A predecessor of Carl Linnaeus, John Ray was the first naturalist to use the idea of species to distinguish different organisms from each other. Focusing primarily on the classification of plants and basing his system on the work of Aristotle, Ray divided plants into two groups: the moncotyledons and the dicotyledons. Both are still recognized today. In 1693, Ray published the final volume of Histora Plantarum, a complete classification of plants and one of the first natural systems of classification that was based on physical characteristics rather than origin and perceived use.

John Ray was born in Black Notley, Essex, England, to Roger Ray, a blacksmith, and Elizabeth Ray, an amateur herbalist and medical practitioner. He attended Trinity College at Cambridge from 16441651, receiving both a bachelor and masters degree. After graduation, he continued at Trinity as an appointed fellow of the college. He taught a number of courses, including Greek, mathematics, and humanities. Ray left his post at Trinity during the Reformation, when he refused to sign an oath required by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. It was at this time that his contribution to taxonomy flourished.

Without employment, Ray relied on the patronage of former students. One such patron was Francis Willughby, a wealthy contemporary from Cambridge. With the support of Willughby, Ray was able to expand his classification of plants from a part-time endeavor restricted to the indigenous species of Chambridgeshire to the whole of the British Isles and beyond. Willughby accompanied Ray on his many expeditions, and his interest in animals complimented Ray's own interests in plants. Ray's collaboration with Willughby ended in 1672, with the death of Willughby. That same year, Ray married Margaret Oakeley. They settled in Black Notley, where Ray continued his scientific endeavors.

As part of his work, Ray was able to convincingly show that fossils represented extinct species. At the time, the link between fossils and extinct species was not an accepted model; however, Ray's evidence provided the basis for the formation of a more thorough system of paleontology. Such a view was unusual for a naturalist at this time, particularly considering Ray's strong religious beliefs.

John Ray never lost his love and wonder for nature and had no problem reconciling his views of the world with his views of religion. As well as publishing extensively on natural history, Ray also published many theological works, including The Wisdom of God, and he was only stopped from taking priestly orders by the English civil war and Reformation. According to Ray, the study of nature was a way to reveal the omnipotence of God and to be a naturalist was a way to work within divinity.

See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; History of exploration II (Age of exploration)

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John Ray, 1627–1705, English naturalist. He was extremely influential in laying the foundations of systematic biology. With his pupil Francis Willughby, he planned a complete classification of the vegetable and animal kingdoms and toured Europe collecting specimens. On Willughby's death, Ray organized and published the material left by his friend. Ray's own work—the botanical part of the project—includes the important Historia plantarum (3 vol., 1686–1704). Ray was the first to name and make the distinction between monocotyledons and dicotyledons. He was also the first to define and explain the term species in the modern sense of the word. Ray studied and wrote on quadrupeds, reptiles, and birds. The Ray Society for the publication of scientific works was founded in his honor in 1844.

See his Correspondence, ed. by E. Lankester (1848) and Further Correspondence, ed. by R. W. Gunther (1928); C. E. Raven, John Ray, Naturalist (2d ed. 1951).

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Ray, John (1607–1705). Naturalist. The son of an Essex blacksmith, Ray was enabled to study at Cambridge, where he subsequently taught for thirteen years. Although ordained episcopally in 1660, he declined to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity, so lost his fellowship in 1662. Supported by prosperous friends, he then pursued his career as a naturalist, attempting a systematic description of all living things. His expeditions around Europe as well as Britain recorded antiquities, local customs, and institutions in addition to flora and fauna. Botany remained his first love, however, and he laid the foundation for a system of classification based on all structural characteristics, setting out many of the natural orders now employed by botanists. His three-volume masterwork Historia plantarum (1686–1704) and his precision of terminology have led to him being regarded as the father of natural history in Britain.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Ray, John (1627–1705) English naturalist whose work on plant and animal classification later influenced Carl Linnaeus and Cuvier. He was the first to distinguish the two main types of flowering plants as monocotyledons and dicotyledons.