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The life and times of John Ray, 1627-1705

PUBLISHED: 12:24 13 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:24 13 February 2015

John Ray

John Ray

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Recognised internationally for his inspirational work, John Ray is known as the father of English natural history. With the help of the Essex Record Office archives, Essex Life shares an insight into his remarkable life and career

John Ray is known as the father of English natural history. He laid the foundations for the classification of living things and was the first person to develop a biological definition of what a species is. He was born in Black Notley and returned to live there in later life.

John was the third son of the village blacksmith, Roger Ray, and his wife Elizabeth, a herbalist. From the age of ten, John studied at Braintree Grammar School, which met in the parish church. In 1644 he won a scholarship to Cambridge and quickly became proficient in languages, mathematics and natural science. He became a fellow in 1649, a lecturer in 1651 and a junior dean in 1658.

While recovering from illness in 1650, John began to walk through the countryside in Cambridge and his interest in botany was awakened. In 1660 he produced his catalogue of Cambridge plants, the first detailed work of its kind produced anywhere in the world.

John’s career at Cambridge was, however, cut short. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, all Cambridge fellows were required to be members of the Church of England. As a non-conformist, John was deprived of his position in the university in 1662.

John left Cambridge, but his scientific career was saved by his friend and fellow student, Francis Willughby, whose interest was in zoology. In 1663, with their friends Nathaniel Bacon and Philip Skippon, they embarked on a tour of Europe, collecting plant and rock samples in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Malta, Sicily, Austria and Switzerland.

Their plan was to devise a complete catalogue of the natural world, Francis working on the animal kingdom and John on the plant kingdom. John’s work on plants was published in four volumes. From these he developed his analysis of species of plant based on form and function rather than on superficial features as was the accepted practice.

John’s interests were many and varied. He was the first person to show that water is carried upwards through the wood of the tree and to show that rings in tree wood indicated the age of a tree. His exploration of fossils led him to consider that fossils disproved the commonly held view that no species had been lost and no new ones created since the creation.

John thought that the study of the natural world would reveal God’s wisdom and power through exploring the wonders of His creation. This was at odds with previous ideas which held that the natural world was a distraction from salvation and should be avoided.

John’s scientific work was held in high regard and in 1667 he was made a member of the Royal Society.

By 1655, John had built a house, Dewlands in Black Notley, for his widowed mother. John moved to Dewlands himself in 1679 after his mother’s death, remaining there for the rest of his life. He died in 1705 and is buried at Black Notley, where there is also a memorial to him in the church. John’s epitaph on this memorial sums up his brilliant yet modest life:

‘A great descent lent nothing to his fame;

Virtue, not birth distinguished his high name

Titles and wealth he never strove to gain

Those he would rather merit than obtain.’

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