1902 Encyclopedia > John Ray (John Wray)

John Ray
(also known as: John Wray)
English naturalist
(1628-1705)




RAY or WRAY (as he wrote his name till 1670), JOHN (1628-1705), sometimes called the father of English natural history, was the son of the blacksmith of Black Notley near Braintree in Essex. There he was born on 29th November 1628, or, according to other authorities, some months earlier. From Braintree school he was sent at the age of sixteen to Catherine Hall, Cambridge, whence he removed to Trinity College after about one year and three-quarters. His tutor at Trinity was Dr Duport, regius pro-fessor of Greek, and his intimate friend and fellow-pupil the celebrated Isaac Barrow. Bay was chosen minor fellow of Trinity in 1649, and in due course became a major fellow on proceeding to the master's degree. He held many college offices, becoming successively lecturer in Greek (1651), mathematics (1653), and humanity (1655), praelec-tor (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 before the university, long before he took holy orders. Among his sermons preached before his ordination, which was not till 23d December 1660, were the famous discourses on The Wisdom of God in the Crea-tion, and on the Chaos, Deluge, and Dissolution of the World. Ray's reputation was high also as a tutor; he communicated his own passion for natural history to several pupils, of whom Francis Willughby is by far the most famous.

Ray's quiet college life came to an abrupt close when he found himself unable to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity of 1661, and was accordingly obliged to give up his fellowship in 1662, the year after Isaac Newton had entered the college. We are told by Dr Derham in his Life of Ray that the reason of his refusal " was not (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 declare for those that had taken the oath that no obligation lay upon them, but feared there might." From this time onwards he seems to have depended chiefly on the bounty of his pupil Willughby, who made Ray his constant companion while he lived, and at his death left him £60 a year, with the charge of educating his two sons.

In the spring of 1663 Ray started together with Willughby and two other of his pupils on a Continental tour, from which he returned in March 1666, parting from Willughby at Montpellier, whence the latter con-tinued 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 Hay's Itineraries. Bay 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 Bay and Willughby returned laden with collections, on which they meant to base complete systematic descriptions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Willughby under-took the former part, but, dying in 1672, left only an ornithology and ichthyology, in themselves vast, for Bay to edit; while the latter used the botanical collections for the groundwork of his Methodus plantarum nova (1682), and his great Historia generalis plantarum (1685). The plants gathered on his British tours had already been described in his Catalogus plantarum Anglise (1670), which work is the basis of all later English floras.

In 1667 Bay was elected a fellow of the Boyal Society, and in 1669 he published in conjunction with Willughby his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions on " Ex-periments concerning the Motion of Sap in Trees." They demonstrated the ascent of the sap through the wood of the tree, and supposed the sap to " precipitate a kind of white coagulum or jelly, which may be well conceived to be the part which every year between bark and tree turns to wood, and of which the leaves and fruits are made." Immediately after his admission into the Boyal Society he was induced by Bishop Wilkins to translate his Peal Character into Latin, and it seems he actually completed a translation, which, however, remained in manuscript; his Methodus plantarum nova was in fact undertaken as a part of Wilkins's great classificatory scheme.

In 1673 Bay married Margaret Oakley of Launton I (Oxford); in 1676 he went to Sutton Coldfield, and in 1677 to Falborne Hall in Essex. Finally, in 1679, lie removed to Black Notley, where he afterwards remained. His life there was quiet and uneventful, but embittered by bodily weakness and chronic sores. He occupied himself in writing books and in keeping up a very wide scientific corre-spondence, and lived, in spite of his infirmities, to the age of seventy-six, dying on 17th January 1705.





Ray's first book, the Catalogas plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nasccnlium (1660, followed by appendices in 1663 and 1685), was written in conjunction with his " amicissimus et individuus comes," John Nid. The plants, 626 in number, are enumerated alphabetic-ally, but a system of classification differing little from Caspar Bauhin's is sketched at the end of the book ; and the notes contain many curious references to other parts of natural history. The stations of the plants are minutely described ; and Cambridge students still gather some of their rarer plants in the copses or chalk-pits where he found them. The book shows signs of his indebtedness to Joachim Jung of Hamburg, who had died in 1657 leaving his writings unpublished ; but a MS. copy of some of them was sent to Ray by Hartlieb in 1660. Jung invented or gave precision to many technical terms that Ray and others at once made use of in their descriptions, and that are now classical; and his notions of what constitutes a specific distinction and what characters are valueless as such seem to have been adopted with little change by Ray. The first two editions of the Catalogas plantarum Anglim (1670, 1677) were likewise arranged alphabetic-ally ; but in the Synopsis stirpiuvi Britannicarum (1690, 1696, also re-edited by Dillenius 1724, and by Hill 1760) Ray applied the scheme of classification which he had by that time elaborated in the Methodus and the Historia plantarum. The Methodus plan-tarum nova (1682) was largely based on the works of Cffisalpini and Jung, and still more on that of Morison of Oxford. The greatest merit of this book is the use of the number of cotyledons as a basis of classification ; though it must bo remembered that the difference between the monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous embryo was detected by Grew. After dividing plants into flowerless and flowering, Ray says, " Floríferas dividemus in Dicotyledones, quarum semina sata binis foliis anomalis, seminalibus dictis, qua3 cotyledonorum usum pnestant, e terra exeunt, vel in binos saltern lobos dividuntur, quamvis cos supra terrain foliorum specie non efferunt; et Monocotyledones, qua; nee folia bina seminalia efferunt nec lobos binos condunt. ____ divisio ad arbores ctiam extendi potest; siquidem Palmee et congéneres hoc respectu eodem modo a reliquis arboribus differunt quo Monocotyledones a reliquia herbis." But a serious blemish was his persistent separation of trees from herbs, a distinction whose falsity had been exposed by Jung and others, but to which Ray tried to give scientific founda-tion by denying the existence of buds in the latter. At this time he based his classification, like Caisalpini, chiefly upon the fruit, and he distinguished several natural groups, such as the grasses, Labiatm, Umbcllifene, and Papilionacese. The classification of the Methodus was extended and improved in the Historia plantarum, but was disfigured by a large class of Anomalse, to include forms that the other orders did not easily admit, and by the separation of the cereals from other grasses. The first volume of this vast book was published in 1685, the second in the next year, and the third in 1704 ; it enumerates and describes all the plants known to the author or described by his predecessors, to the number, according to Adanson, of 18,625 species. In the first volume a chapter "De plantis in genero" contains an account of all the anatomical and physiological knowledge of the time regarding plants, with the recent speculations and discoveries of Ciesalpini, Grow, Malpighi, and Jung. And Cuvier and Dupetit Thouars, declaring that it was this chapter which gave acceptance and authority to these authors' works, say that "the best monument that could be erected to the memory of Ray would be the republica-tion of this part of his work separately." The Stirpium _______-arum extra Britannias nascentium Sylloge (1694) is a much amplified edition of the catalogue of plants collected on his own Continental tour. In the preface to this book he first clearly admitted the doctrine of the sexuality of plants, which, however, he had no share in establishing. Here also begins his long controversy with Rivinus, which chiefly turned upon Ray's indefensible separation of ligneous from herbaceous plants, and also upon what he con-ceived to be the misleading reliance that Rivinus placed on the characters of the corolla. But in the second edition of his Methodus (1703) he followed Rivinus and Tournefort in taking the flower instead of the fruit as his basis of classification : he was no longer a fructicist but a corollist.

Besides editing his friend Willughoy's books, Ray wrote several zoological works of his own, including Synopses of Quadrupeds (1693), that is to say, both mammals and reptiles, of Birds, and of Fishes (1713) ; the last two were published posthumously, as was also the more important Historia Insectorum (1710). The History of Insects embodied a great mass of Willughby's notes, and the Synopses of Birds and Fishes were mere abridgments of the " Orni-thology" and "Ichthyology."

Most of Ray's minor works were the outcome of his faculty for laborious compiling and cataloguing; for instance, his Collection of English Proverbs (1670), his Collection of out-of-the-way English Words (1674), his Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages (1693), and his Dictionariolum trilingüe, or Nomenclátor classicus (1675). The last was written for the use of Willughby's sons, his pupils ; it passed through many editions, and is still useful for its careful identifications of plants and animals mentioned by Greek and Latin writers. But Ray's permanent influence and reputation hive probably depended most of all upon his two books entitled The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Crea-tion (1691), and Miscellaneous Discourses concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World (1692). The latter includes three essays, on "The Primitive Chaos and Creation of the World," "The General Deluge, its Causes and Effects," and "The Dissolu-tion of the World and Future Conflagrations." The germ of these works was contained in sermons preached long before in Cambridge. Both books obtained immediate popularity ; the former, at least, was translated into several languages ; and to this day their influ-ence is apparent. For, as Sir J. Smith says in his biography of Ray, "this book [The Wisdom of God, &c] is the basis of all the labours of following divines, who have made the book of nature a commentary on the Book of Revelation." In it Ray recites in-numerable examples of the perfection of organic mechanism, the multitude and variety of living creatures, the minuteness and usefulness of their parts. Many, if not most, of the familiar proofs of purposive adaptation and design in nature were suggested by Ray. The structure of the eye, the hollowness of the bones, the camel's stomach, the hedgehog's armour, are among the thou-sand instances cited by him of immediate creative interpositions. But, though his application of natural history to apologetic theo-logy has made his reputation peculiarly wide, it must be acknow-ledged that none of his scientific discoveries at all equal in value those of the physiological botanists who immediately preceded him, and that even in elassificatory insight ho was surpassed by several of his contemporaries.

Authorities.—Select Remains, Itineraries, and Life, by Dr Derham, edited by George Scott, 1740; notice by Sir J. E. Smith in Ilee's Cydopeedia; notice by Cuvier and A. Dupetit Thouars in the Biographic Vniverselle; all these were collected under the title Memorials of Ray, and edited (with the addition of a complete catalogue of his works) by Dr Edwin Lankester, 8vo (Ray Society), 1840 ; Correspondence (with Willughby, Martin Lister, Dr Robinson, Petiver, Derham, Sir Hans Sloane, and others), edited by Dr Derham, 1718 ; Selections, with additions, edited by Lankester Ray Society), 1S4S. For accounts of Ray's system of classification, see Cuvier, Lecons Hist. s. Sci. Nat., p. 48.3; Sprengel, Gesch. d. Botanik, ii. p. 40 ; also Whewell, Hist. Ind. Sci., iii. p. 332 (ed. 1847), and Wood, art. "Classification" in Roe's Cyclopedia. (D. W. T.)






The above article was written by: D'Arcy W. Thompson, B.A., Professor of Biology, University College, Aberdeen.



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