What did he do?

John Ray laid the foundations of botany and zoology in Britain.

The botanical terms ‘petal’ and ‘pollen’ were first used by Ray, and he was the first botanist to distinguish between monocotyledons and dicotyledons. Ray’s Historia Plantarum was the first textbook of modern botany.

In systematic classification he had no successor until Linnaeus.

In his efforts to understand plant and animal form and behaviour he was ahead of Linnaeus and there was no successor to Ray until the 19th century.

Later scientists recognised his significance very clearly.

Linnean Society

Sir James Smith (1759-1828), founder of the Linnean Society lauded Ray as:

“ our immortal naturalist, the most accurate in observation, the most philosophical in contemplation, and the most faithful in description of all the botanists of his own or perhaps any other time.”

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

Gilbert White of Selborne

The famous 18th century naturalist wrote:

“ Foreign systematics are, I observe, much too vague in their specific differences; which are almost universally constituted by one or two particular marks, the rest of the description running in general terms. But our countryman, the excellent Mr Ray, is the only describer who conveys some precise idea in every term or word, maintaining his superiority over his followers and imitators in spite of the advantage of fresh discoveries and modern information.”

Baron Cuvier

In his Biographie Universelle (Paris, 1843) Cuvier wrote of John Ray:

“ He displayed the rare talent to bring scattered observations into one point of view. Here may be found the principal discoveries made by Caesalpinus, Columna, Grew, Malpighi and Jungius in addition to those made by Ray himself; and in this way resulted the most complete treatise which had yet appeared on vegetation in general. Although this work may not have been very frequently quoted, yet it is through it that the ideas of these authors were made common in science. These [Ray’s] writings formed an epoch in the history of botany.”

Baron Cuvier [29K]

The Ray Society

The bibliographer Keynes wrote:

“ Since the founding of the Ray Society in 1844 Ray has been recognised as the Father of English Botany, and has often been called ‘The English Linnaeus’. Indeed, it is the opinion of some botanists that he was more of an original than Linnaeus, being the Great Exemplar as a field naturalist as well as being a classifier and cataloguer... ”

Ray crowned Prince of Biology, 19th century [13K]

The continuing work of the Ray Society

Obstacles overcome by John Ray

Ray had no salary as a scientist, but he was supported by gentlemen interested in science, who came together in the newly formed Royal Society.

He lost his access to Cambridge libraries, and lamented his distance from the Botanic gardens being established in London, but he built up a library in Essex, travelled widely to see plants in their native habitats, and received many samples in the post from Britain, Europe, the Far East, and the Americas.

His field studies made him the most travelled scientist of his century, at a time when travel was hard. The first map of Britain to show roads only appeared in 1675, too late for Ray and his companions, whose expeditions began in 1650.


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