Botanist, Author, Polymath
Born (and died) at Black Notley, Braintree, Essex, Ray was a polymath whose interests and published works ranged over the disciplines of natural history (esp. botany), geology and palaeontology, language and proverbs, and theology. He was earned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and was ordained in 1660, although he did not practice as a preacher until later in life. He completed most of his major work in Essex, using the countryside around Black Notley to provide specimens of plants, birds and insects; although he also travelled widely around Britain and Europe, studying natural history. Ray taught at the University of Cambridge and compiled the first local flora of Cambridgeshire.
Ray studied plant reproduction, introducing the terms petal, stamen, pollen; movement of sap in trees; and seeds (reporting to the Royal Society that some plants have two seed leaves and others have only one). He also developed a system of classification using the flower for species determination and making flowering and non-flowering plants major groupings. In flowering plants he separated those with enclosed seeds (Angiosperms) and those with ‘naked’ seeds (Gymnosperms). He recognised the importance of fossils and even suggested that many species and even genera had disappeared (contrary to the then widely held belief that all organisms had been separately created and all were still living).
The important Sloane Collection which formed the basis of The Natural History Museum and contains Sloane’s Herbarium is annotated and cross-referenced to his friend John Ray’s most important work, the 3-volume Historia Plantarum (1686-1704), which was the first most complete systematic account of all known plants (and pre-Linnaeus, who was to call him: ‘the incomparable botanist’).
Ray also published amongst others: A Catalogue of Plants of the British Isles (1670); Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682); Synopsis Stirpium Britannicarum (1690) and The Wisdom of God Manifested in the World of Creation (1691).
Taken from: Twigs Way, Ed., Rooted in Essex (Essex Garden Trust, 2006).
See Also: Charles Raven, John Ray, Naturalist. His Life and Works (Cambridge University Press, 1942).