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John Ray

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John Ray

John Ray
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, and the man with whom "the adventure of modern science begins".[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. Thus he advanced scientific empiricism against the deductive rationalism of the scholastics. 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. 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[1] of Trinity in 1649, and later major fellow.[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's reputation was high also as a tutor; and he communicated his own passion for natural history to several pupils, of whom Francis Willughby is by far the most famous.


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.[6] 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."[7]

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.[6]

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, and at his death left him 6 shillings a year, with the charge of educating his two sons.

In the spring of 1663 Ray started together with Willughby and two other pupils (Philip Skippon and 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.[9]

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".[10] 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. This work largely epitomized Natural Theology during his time.[11]

Ray gave an early description of dendrochronology, explaining for the ash tree how to find its age from its tree-rings.[1]

Later life and family

In 1673 Ray married Margaret Oakley of Launton; in 1676 he went to Sutton Coldfield, 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".[12]


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.[13]

  • 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".[13]p52 [14]Chapter 12 "Willughby and Ray laid the foundation of scientific ornithology".[15]
  • 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.[13]p92 [14]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.[14]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.[16]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.[17]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.[13]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".[14]p10 Ray's works were directly influential on the development of taxonomy by [19] 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.


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


  1. ^ a b 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. 
  5. ^ The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the Creation, Google Books
  6. ^ a b wikisource:Ray, John (DNB00)
  7. ^ Tobias George Smollett (1761) The Critical review, or, Annals of literature, Volume 11 pp. 92–93
  8. ^ John Gribbin, Science, a History, 1543-2001, Allen Lane (New York, NY), 2002.
  9. ^ Charles Earle Raven (1986). John Ray, naturalist : his life and works. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31083-0.
  10. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica: John Ray
  11. ^ "The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation." Retrieved on 17 February 2014.
  12. ^ Mayr Growth of biological thought p256; original was Ray, History of Plants. 1686, trans E. Silk.
  13. ^ a b c d Keynes, Sir Geoffrey [1951] 1976. John Ray, 1627–1705: a bibliography 1660–1970. Van Heusden, Amsterdam.
  14. ^ a b c d Raven, Charles E. 1942. John Ray, naturalist: his life and works. Cambridge.
  15. ^ Newton, Alfred 1893. Dictionary of birds. Black, London
  16. ^ Bowler, P.J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea. 3rd ed, California.
  17. ^ Hooke, Robert 1705. The posthumous works of Robert Hooke. London. repr. 1969 Johnson N.Y.
  18. ^ The Ray Society. Retrieved 7 May 2013
  19. ^ "John Ray Society". St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 

Other sources

External links

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