After he graduated with a B.A. in 1648 at the age of 21, Ray was elected a Minor Fellow. He was a Latin and Hebrew scholar and was appointed Greek Lecturer in 1651, Mathematical Lecturer in 1653 and Humanities Reader in 1655. He was an excellent speaker, a student of natural history and possessed a keen interest in machinery and manufacturing processes. He also made a study of local dialects and proverbs. From his mother he had inherited his religious beliefs, the motivation for all his work.
Illness in 1650 led to a long period of convalescence which Ray used to explore the countryside around him and collect plants as he had in his childhood. He quickly realised the plants had no standard names so he decided to produce the first-ever book of local plants. This Catalogue of Cambridge Plants, published in 1660, was a work of such scientific importance that its effects are still with us today. Its success encouraged Ray to embark on a countrywide survey of plants.
After the success of the catalogue, Ray wrote to Francis Willughby, his pupil at Cambridge, later to become his Patron:
‘I shall give the names of all plants that are or shall be found growing in England in an alphabetical order together with their synonyms [alternative names] …’
John Ray was considered to be the most widely-travelled man of his time. His journeys were perhaps his greatest physical achievement, given no detailed maps, only horses or carts for land-based transport and no means of recording his findings other than by collecting specimens and making notes.
These travels were as important to Ray and the development of natural science as the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle was to be to Charles Darwin. It was the enormous volume of information collected during these journeys that formed the basis of his life’s work.
His British and Continental tours between 1658 and 1671 were usually spent in the company of Willughby and Phillip Skippon, who was the only son of Cromwell’s Major-General.
In 1672 Ray lost his great friend and benefactor, Francis Willughby, who died at the age of 37. He was executor of Willughby’s will and received an annuity of £60 a year; enough to enable him to spend the rest of his life studying the natural sciences.
As Willughby’s notes were not developed enough to publish, John Ray agreed to finish the work on birds and fish. It is now recognised that the majority of work in the Ornithologicae (1676) and History of Fish (1686) was Ray’s own, but it was characteristic of him to publish under Willughby’s name.
At Middleton Hall he met Margaret Oakley, a 19 year-old member of the household, and they married in 1673. After Willughby’s widow remarried, Ray and his wife returned to Essex in 1677 where they lived at Faulkbourne Hall, close to his mother at her home at Dewlands, Black Notley. On his mother’s death in 1679, the Rays moved into Dewlands where they had four daughters and lived until John Ray’s death in 1705.
These were the most productive years of his life, and one author observes: ‘The plan in the Ray household in those years appears to have been a book one year and a daughter the next!’