Francis Willughby

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Francis Willughby


English Natural Historian

Francis Willughby was a gifted amateur observer and collector of natural history specimens. His work in zoology, particularly with insects and vertebrates, together with his moral and financial support, constituted a major contribution to the pioneering work of John Ray in biological systematics.

Francis Willughby was born the third child and only son of Sir Thomas Willughby and his wife, country gentry living in the county of Warwickshire. Willughby was educated at Sutton Coldfield School and at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he met John Ray (1628-1705), eight years his senior and a lecturer at the college, who later became a pioneering biological systematist. Following his graduation in 1656 Willughby continued his studies at Cambridge and through extensive private reading of natural history at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. In the early 1660s Willughby and Ray undertook a series of collecting expeditions through various parts of England and Wales. This travel was largely underwritten by Willughby. The two men evidently decided to try and place the plant and animal worlds within some scientific system. In 1663 Willughby became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of London. In the spring of 1663 Willughby and Ray, in company with Phillip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon, who had also been students of Ray's at Cambridge, traveled in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. They spent the winter of 1663-64 in Padua, where Willughby registered and studied anatomy at the university there. In 1664 Willughby left Ray and Skippon in Italy, returning to England via Spain. Willughby purchased many engravings of plants and animals and continued with certain botanical experiments, mainly having to do with sap rising in birch trees. When Ray returned to England, he and Willughby continued this activity, while Ray also helped arrange and classify Willughby's specimens. Willughby's father died in 1665, and in 1668 Willughby married Emma Barnard, by whom he had a daughter and several sons. He had been planning a trip to the American colonies to study the animal life there when he died at his home in Middleton, England, in the summer of 1672.

Ray had been living and working at Willughby's home as tutor to his friend's children; he continued there for several years in that capacity while simultaneously working on Willughby's collections. Ray was also a trustee of Willughby's estate, with Skippon and Francis Jessop, another colleague, as co-trustees. Willughby's will provided Ray an annual stipend of sixty pounds. Ray spent some time in editing and completing two books of Willughby's work and observations, Ornithologia (1676), and Historia piscium (1686). There was considerable debate in the nineteenth century concerning Willughby's share in the conclusions reached in these books and in Ray's own later publications. Willughby was an extremely able amateur naturalist whose observations informed much of Ray's work. He was also a warmly supportive friend and colleague. But, taken as a whole, his work did not match the stature of Ray's accomplishments. Willughby was a young man of many varied interests, some of which ran in other directions, including family history, foreign language vocabularies, and the recreational games played by people in late seventeenth-century England. Unfortunately, he died before accomplishing much of the work in natural history that he had planned. Ray's editions of Willughby's books incorporated conclusions drawn from Willughby's field work and experiments, his collections, and their many discussions concerning scientific method. With the aid of Skippon and Jessop, Ray, a very self-effacing person, placed all of these materials within an understandable scientific context. Ray's own later publications on animals probably benefited in some measure from the close association with his younger colleague. But Ray's conceptual and organizational genius, coupled with his own very extensive study and field work, merit his firm position as one of the fathers of modern biology.


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Francis Willughby

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