Collaborative effort

Science usually requires teamwork. Individuals build on records of past work of past, and collaborate across continents with other scientists.

Ray’s vision

By 1659 Ray had a vision for a complete Flora of the British Isles. He knew he could not observe and catalogue all the plants on his own, and in the preface to his Cambridge Catalogue he wrote:

“ My present purpose involved a measure of haste in order to revive the almost extinct study of botany... There are larger prospects ahead. This little book may excite others to a similar survey of their own localities and so to a complete Phytologica Brittanica.

In a letter to Willughby dated 25th Feb 1659 Ray first outlined his plans for a Phytologia Brittanica. His plan was to enlist the help of various observers in different counties of England. One collaborator was Martin Lister who Ray met at Montpellier in 1666.

Francis Willughby

In 1652 Willughby had arrived at Cambridge as a student. William Derham wrote of Ray and Willoughby:

“ These two gentlemen, finding the History of Nature very imperfect, had agreed between themselves, before their travels beyond sea, to reduce the several tribes of things to a method and to give accurate descriptions of the several species from a strict view of them. And forasmuch as Mr Willughby’s genius lay chiefly to animals, therefore he undertook the birds, beasts, fishes and insects, as Mr Ray did the vegetables.”

Ray’s colleagues

John Ray was glad to have others correct his work. He wrote to Hans Sloane on 21 Feb 1695:

“ "I am very glad when myself or my friends discover any errors or mistakes in my writing: thank God that he hath let me live so long as to acknowledge and amend them." (Correspondence p288)

“ Having finished the History of Birds I am now beginning that of Fishes, wherein I shall crave your assistance, especially as to the flat cartilagineous kind and the several sorts of Aselli; especially I desire information about the Coalfish of Turner, which I suppose may sometimes come to York."

At the same time he evidently enlisted the help of other friends; for a few weeks later Peter Dent, the Cambridge physician, wrote to say that James Mayfield the fishmonger, who went up to the London market every Friday and looked out for rare fishes, had not been able to procure any ‘dried Maids or Thornback at the mart’ but had helped him to a fresh Thornback, a female weighing ten pounds.

In 1669, Ray delayed the printing of Catalogus Plantarum Angliae while awaiting information on (herbal-related) medical matters from Dr Needham.

In 1659 Wilkins became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and an associate of John Ray. At the restoration in 1660 Wilkins was removed from Trinity, and became secretary of the Royal Society. Wilkins befriended victims of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. In 1668 he was made Bishop of Chester. John Ray was a regular visitor, spending several months at a time at the Bishop’s Palace. Bishop Wilkins died in November 1672.

“ You have so narrowly searched every corner of Wales for plants... I doubt whether Ireland will answer expectation, becasue it hath been already searched by skilful and industrious Herbarists as Dr Sherard and others...”
Further Correspondence p.275 1 Feb 1698

“ The most part of the Winter I spent here [Middleton] in revising and helping to put in order Mr Willughby’s collections of of birds, Fishes, Shells, stones and other fossils, seeds, dried plants, coins etc., in giving what assistance I could to Dr Wilkins in framing his tables of plants, Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes etc; in gathering up into a Catalogue all such plants as I had at any time found growing wild in England, not in order to do the present publishing of them, but for my oown use. Possibly one day they may see light, at present the world is glutted with Dr Merrett’s bungling Pinax.

“ I wish you would take a little pains this Summer about grasses, so thst we might compare notes, for I would fain clear and complete their history.

“ I am now compiling a general History of Plants, wherein a person of your skill and insight may afford me great assistance, by the advantage of your travelling into those parts where those plants are said to grow that I doubt of. p.139 27 July 1683

“ Rev J Banister was a missionary in Virginia. In 1680 he sent Ray a list of plants indigenous there. Banisteria commemorates him ... Dr Covell; now he might contribute somewhat to our History, he having described and drawn himself many plants observed by him in Thrace, Greece and Asia the less [Asia Minor].

“ "preparing for ye Presse a short Discourse concerning ye Dissolution of ye World. I have been this Summer & am also still busy in getting of ye Insects of this Countrey & find them sso numerous that seven years will not suffice to search out and give any tolerable account of them. I wish I had some assistants as your self, who can with diligence prosecute any enquiry. For I know that in other parts of England there are many species as well of Insects as of Plants not to be found here.”
17 Aug 1691, Further Correspondence p.221


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