Ray, John (1627-1705)
At the age of ten he began his schooling in Braintree and just six years later was awarded a scholarship, allowing him to study at Cambridge University. At Catherine Hall from 1644, he transferred to Trinity College two years later and received his BA in 1648. An extremely successful scholar, he was appointed to various positions within the college over the following years, including lecturer in Greek, mathematics and humanities as well as a junior dean and college steward. It was at Trinity that he met Francis Willughby, an early student of his who would become an extremely close friend and patron. Ray continued collecting plants in the Cambridge district and developed a passion for the classification and documentation of the natural world. In 1660 he published what is probably the world's first ever local flora, Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium, of the Cambridge region. Willughby was also a keen naturalist and the pair began to travel much of England in search of all manner of artefacts.
Around this time he started having problems at Trinity. It became necessary for all Fellows to be ordained, a requirement which had been suspended between 1650 and 1658. Ray's opposition to vowing the Oath of the Covenant may seem strange, he was already a preaching Anglican, but he strongly disapproved of ritual and oaths and regarded them as threatening. Eventually, though, his love of Cambridge led him to become ordained in 1660. Unfortunately, at the Reformation in 1662, Charles II insisted all clergymen sign a declaration disavowing the same oath, an act which Ray considered dishonourable and eventually he was forced to leave Cambridge for this reason. Worried about how he would support himself and his mother, for he was not from a wealthy family, it was his old friend Willughby that came to the rescue. He offered to support Ray while they pursued their interest in natural history together; an offer gladly accepted by the dedicated natural historian. Over the years that followed, they travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles and in 1663 they left for France. Until 1666 Ray, Willughby and their friend, Philip Skippon, travelled throughout France, Germany and Italy, making collections of every kind and visiting important figures in the study of the natural world. On their return the pair spent much of the following years at Willughby's manor (Middleton Hall in Tamworth) organising their finds. Ray recalled these times as amongst the best of his life. In 1670 he published his Catalogus plantarum Angliae which was dedicated to his friend and benefactor.
In 1672 Willughby died at the age of 37. Although a personal tragedy for Ray, he was left with a £60 per year stipend which allowed him not only to complete his own projects, but also to arrange and publish Willughby's most important manuscripts. When classifying plants he preferred to use essential structural characteristics, following Marcello Malpighi. He divided plants into monocotyledons and dicotyledons and used seed and flower structure to further divide groups. In 1686 his work culminated in the publication of volume I of Historia plantarum, a work which, along with the second volume (1688) would list the 18,000 plants then known to the western world. At the same time he had not only been caring for Willughby's two young sons, but also organising and editing his friend's ornithological manuscripts. The work was published in 1676, with the description of 230 species and illustrations paid for by Willughby's widow.
Following this he embarked upon another epic zoological project, the natural history of fishes, but at this time he left Middleton because Willughby's wife had remarried. In the end the Historia piscium (1686) was largely Ray's own work. Still not content to leave the animal kingdom, Ray became evermore ambitious, and compiled both a Synopsis of animals and reptiles (1693) and, in his final years, a Historia insectorum. This was published posthumously in 1710. Ray was himself a family man having married Margaret Oakley, governess of the Willughby children, not long after his friend's death. Together they had four daughters to which he was devoted, and with him they would spend many happy hours collecting butterflies and other insects. In total Ray published 25 books and, with Willughby's help, managed to cover the majority of plants and animals known to the 17th century world.
G.S. Boulger, 1886, "The life and work of John Ray, and their relation to the process of science", Transactions of the Essex Field Club, 4(2): 171-188
M. Brian, 1991, "Who was…John Ray?", Biologist, 46(1):17-18
S. Mandelbrote, 2004, "Ray, John (1627–1705)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition (2005):
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23203, accessed 23 September 2010.
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