The Life and Times of John Ray

john-rayJohn Ray’s greatness was that, in a time of transition and universal turmoil, he saw the need the precise and ordered knowledge. He set himself to test the old, explore the new and, by immense labour in the field of study, laid the foundations of modern science in many branches of botany and zoology.

Perhaps more than any other man, he led the transition from the mediaeval to the modern outlook. This was due not only to his own genius and opportunities, but also to his inherited character and the circumstances of his upbringing. Ray’s research took in all aspects of the natural world, from plants, animals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects down to the very rocks themselves.

From the time of his first Catalogue of Cambridge Plants in 1660 through to his death in 1705 Ray worked to found  the study of the natural world as a scientific, experiment based and university-worthy subject in Britain. His work has also had huge international implications right down to the present day.

Placing Ray in Context 

Ray lived during a time of transition from the ‘medieval’ to the ‘modern’ world, a time of scientific discovery that we now refer to as the Age of Enlightenment. Scholars were starting to establish modern scientific principles of reason and analysis - creating hypotheses and theory which were then tested through empirical, logical experiments. The Royal Society was also founded in 1663, a society predominantly composed of chemists and physicists who were in favour of this new experimental approach, and Ray himself became a Fellow in 1667.

However, before Ray’s work nature and natural history were not considered part of this scientific movement. Common understanding of plants and animals by people at all levels of society, from common folk through to university academics, was governed by superstition. Any catalogues of plants and animals were based on a mix of ancient classical knowledge, folklore and mythology. Most critical of all to our story, there was no scientific understanding of what a species was, making such catalogues highly inaccurate.

In fact, many theologians in the medieval period believed that the natural world was the realm of demons and pagan gods and discouraged its wider study. It was only during Ray’s time that this gradually gave way to a desire, as Ray expressed it, to ‘illustrate the glory of God in the knowledge of the works of nature’. People began to see nature as part of God’s marvelous creation rather than something unruly to be feared.


29 November – born at Black Notley, son of local blacksmith.
6 December – christened.


September – started school at St. Michael’s in Braintree.
Vicar: Rev. Samuel Collins. Teacher: Mr. Love.


Entered Cambridge University, sponsored by money from the will of Thomas Hobbs. First at Catherine Hall as a pupil of Daniel Duckfield.


Transferred to Trinity as a pupil of James Duport.


Graduated B.A.


Elected Minor Fellow.


Suffered a long illness.
During convalescence he took long walks and began the study of botany.


Appointed Lecturer in Greek and later that year achieved his M.A.


Appointed Tutor and spent the next nine years teaching Greek, mathematics and humanities. Among his pupils were Francis Willughby, Peter Courthope and Phillip Skippon. It was during this time that he began his travels throughout the U.K.


Ordained at London by Bishop Sanderson of Lincoln.

It was during this year that his catalogue of the flora around Cambridge was published (Catalogus Plantarum circa Cantabrigiam Nascentium) which was the first work of its kind.

At this time he started to explore further afield, accompanied by his friends – especially Francis Willughby, his future benefactor. By now he was a Cambridge scholar of high repute with every prospect of an honourable career in the academic world. He was considered a great orator and preacher but he was soon to be cast into self-imposed exile by his conscientious non-conformity.


Act of Uniformity. Ray refused to agree, saying:
“I shall now cast myself upon Providence and good friends, liberty is a sweet thing”. This Act also led to the expulsion of a majority of Heads and Fellows.


From 1663 he was travelling widely on the Continent with Willughby, Skippon and other friends, studying local floral and fauna, with a brief spell during the winter of 1664 studying anatomy in Padua.


Returned to Essex.


Admitted Fellow of the Royal Society.


Finalised the purchase of the house ‘Dewlands’ at Black Notley for his mother (his father having died in 1656). Spent part of the year at Middleton, Warwickshire, the family home of Willughby.


At Middleton experimenting with sap, seeds and leaves. Discovered mono- and di-cotyledons. Was consulted by settlers in America on the best method of obtaining sap from the maple tree to make into syrup.


Changed his name to the spelling of Ray which we know today, without the W. In this year he published his English Catalogue and Collection of English Proverbs.


Published Observations and Catalogue Exteris.
On 5 June of this year he married Margaret Oakley, a girl less than half his age whom he had met at Middleton.
Published collection of English words and dialects.


While living at Sutton Coldfield he published a dictionary of three languages.


Completed Willughby’s Ornithologiae which he later published under Willughby’s name.


Mother died. He and his wife moved into ‘Dewlands’ at Black Notley, where they were to bring up their family and he was to compile his greatest work.


Birth of their first children, twin girls named Margaret and Mary.


Published Historia Piscius (study of marine life). Later that year he published the first volume of Historia Plantarum, his greatest achievement, which contains the description of 6,900 plants.


Birth of his daughter Catherine.


Published Volume Two of Historia Plantarum, and Fasciculus Britannicarum.


Birth of daughter Jane. He also published the second volume of his dictionary of three languages.


Published Wisdom of God, his important theological work.


Death of daughter Mary and illness of his wife and daughter Margaret.


Ray seriously ill. Doctor Derham and Sir Hans Sloane visit Ray to discuss the future of his works. Published Methodus Insectarum and other works and continued to work on his study of insects.


Ray died at ‘Dewlands’ on 17 January.


Posthumous publication of his Historia Insectorum, Synopsis Avium et Piscium, Philosophical Letters and Select Remains.