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 on John Ray
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 Biography 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.