A short biography

John Ray was an ordained lecturer who lost his university post during a religious persecution, but went on to become a founding figure in British botany and zoology.

He also wrote profound theological works, illustrating the power and love of God by evidence and observations from the created natural world. He continued scientific work almost to the end of his life, encompassing plants, birds, mammals and, in his last years, insects.

Birth and family

John Ray was born in a smithy at Black Notley near Braintree, Essex. His father was the village blacksmith. Derham reports that Ray’s mother "was a very religious and good woman, and of great use... particularly to her neighbours that were lame or sick, among whom she did great good", through her skill in the use of medicinal plants.

The smithy where Ray was born [53K]

Life at college

Ray’s gifts were recognised at his school in Braintree, and he won a scholarship to Cambridge University. He graduated from Trinity College and became a minor Fellow in 1649, later gaining appointments as Lecturer in Greek, Mathematics and Humanities.

In 1650 he began studying plants in his spare time. He explored the county of Cambridgeshire on ‘sampling’ expeditions and established specimens in his garden. In 1660 his Cambridge Catalogue was published, the first county Flora.

Cambridge Catalogue, the cover [22K]

Expeditions

The Peaks & North Wales, 1658
The Lakes & Isle of Man, 1659
The North & Scotland, 1661
Wales & the South West, 1662 Map [4K]
The European Continent, 1663-5
Cornwall & the South

In the 1650s he began using his Summer vacations for longer expeditions around Britain with friends. His main colleague was Sir Francis Willughby, whose interest in animals complemented Ray’s in plants. In 1660 they formed a plan for a complete catalogue of the plants and animals of Britain.

Sir Francis Willughby [22K]

The Great Ejection

Ray had studied to become a minister in the Church of England. While a lecturer he preached regularly at chapel in Cambridge, but his ordination was delayed until 1660 by the disruption of the Civil War.

During the war many ministers had signed a Covenant - a manifesto for reform of the church. In 1662 the new king required every minister to swear an oath condemning the Covenant. Although Ray had not himself signed, he would not condemn it, and accordingly lost his university post, his house and his botanic garden.

The European Expedition

After the Great Ejection of 1662 Ray was left with no income and no place to live. Past students and their wealthy friends gave him various jobs tutoring their children. In his spare time he worked unpaid in the natural sciences.

In 1663 Ray and three friends embarked on a three year expedition around Europe, observing plants and animals. They talked with continental academics at Montpellier, the centre of the emerging science of Botany. Ray spent many years subsequently cataloguing and analysing the material gathered on this and other expeditions.

The Royal Society

In November 1667 Ray was “admitted Fellow of the Royal Society”. In 1678 he was invited to become Secretary of the Royal Society, but turned it down because he regarded 'divinity' as his primary vocation.

Letters relating to Ray and the Royal Society

Middleton Hall

After the early death of Sir Francis Willughby in 1672, Ray fulfilled his duty as trustee of the education of Willughby’s children by living at Middleton Hall in Derbyshire as their tutor. He also worked on the posthumous publication of Willughby’s notes on birds, adding much himself, but ascribing the book to Willughby’s name only.

A small pension from Willughby’s will enabled Ray to spend the rest of his life working as a scientist and theological writer, rather than seeking fresh posts as an itinerant tutor working at various country estates.

Dewlands

After his mother’s death in 1679 Ray moved to the village of his birth, Black Notley. He lived in a cottage called ‘Dewlands’ which he had bought for his mother in 1655, when his father died.

Dewlands Cottage, a drawing [38K]

Later Life

After 1685 John Ray suffered from leg sores, probably caused by lack of winter heating, and travelled less as he grew older. Ray's theological writings, including Wisdom of God were published during this period. His field work turned to insects, of which he found a great variety within a few miles of his home.

He kept in contact with the scientific community by letter, and received many specimens by post. Samuel Dale, a local man, helped Ray with cataloguing and was inspired to become a biologist.

Ray died in January 1705, and is buried at the church in Black Notley.

A visit by the Linnean Society to Ray’s grave. [24K]


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