John Ray and His Encyclopedia of Plant Life

In 1686, 1688, and 1704, the English naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) published the three volumes of Historia generalis plantarum (A general account of plants); each volume had approximately 1,000 pages. Ray was 59 and this was the culmination of his life's work, in which he attempted to classify plants. The book described more than 18,600 species, most of them European, and as well as describing them Ray included information on their distribution and ecology, germination, growing habits, diseases, and, where appropriate, their pharmaceutical uses.

Until Ray published his work, the traditional method by which naturalists classified plants involved using a list of plant characteristics. A new specimen would be checked to see whether or not it possessed the first characteristic on the list, then the second, and so on, at each point dividing the possible identification along two routes, so the final identification was achieved by progressively narrowing down the possibilities until only one remained. Ray was the first naturalist to reject this approach and instead to classify plants on the basis of their visible differences and similarities. This led him to place plants into groups sharing many features in common.

Although he was not the first naturalist to distinguish between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, he may have been the first to use this as a major division in his method of classification. Ray recognized the species as the basic unit for classification and was the first naturalist to use the term species in its modern sense. His Historia plantarum remained a standard botanical textbook in Britain throughout most of the 18th century, and Ray became known as the father of English natural history.

Historia plantarum was not Ray's first botanical work. He had been interested in botany from an early age, and in the 1650s he found himself with the leisure to study plants. He had fallen physically and mentally sick in 1650, and his recovery was slow. It took six years for him to recuperate, and during this time he explored the countryside around Cambridge, where he was living, and grew plants in a garden to which he had access. In 1659, his study completed, he published Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (Catalog of plants growing in the vicinity of Cambridge—usually known as the Cambridge catalog). In later years he toured England examining the flora, and in 1670 he published Catalogus plantarum Angliae et insularum adjacentium (Catalog of the plants of England and adjacent islands), along the same lines as the Cambridge catalog.

Ray was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1667, and in 1673 he submitted to the society a paper entitled “A Discourse on the Seeds of Plants,” in which he emphasized the importance of the differences between monocotyledons and dicotyledons. He developed this distinction further in his book Methodus plantarum nova (New botanical method), published in 1682. Ray's work was not perfect. He distinguished woody from nonwoody plants without recognizing that these may be closely related, and his listings of plants included a large number of anomalies that he was unable to place. Nevertheless, his was the first serious attempt to produce a system of classification based on natural features reflecting relationships.

John Ray (or Wray as he styled himself until 1670) was born on November 29, 1627, at Black Notley, a village in Essex, on the northern side of the River Thames and to the east of London, where his father was the village blacksmith. His mother was a herbalist and practiced herbal medicine. Ray attended school in Braintree, the nearest town, and when he was 16 he enrolled at Catherine Hall (now St. Catherine's College) at the University of Cambridge. He transferred to Trinity College in 1646 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1648 and a master's degree in 1651. Ray became a minor fellow of Trinity College in 1649 and held several college offices. He lectured in Greek in 1651, mathematics in 1653, and humanities in 1655, and one of his pupils was Francis Willughby (1635–72). Ray was ordained a priest in 1660.

In 1660 the English monarchy was restored. Charles II came to the throne, and in 1662 the Act of Uniformity came into force, requiring all clergy to be ordained by bishops and to sign an agreement to use the Book of Common Prayer in Church of England services. This was Charles's attempt to end religious dissension by standardizing the liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer being largely based on the Elizabethan prayer book of 1559. Approximately 2,000 clergymen felt unable to agree, and John Ray was one of them. His refusal to sign meant that Ray had to resign his fellowship at Trinity and leave the university. He had lost his academic career and his livelihood.

Francis Willughby came to his rescue. Willughby, a keen naturalist, was independently wealthy and supported Ray financially. In the spring of 1663 Ray and Willughby, accompanied by two more of Ray's students, set off on a tour of Europe. Ray and Willughby separated at Montpellier, in southern France, Willughby continuing into Spain while Ray returned to England. When Willughby returned, the two began planning a joint work in which they would use the specimens they had collected as the basis for a complete plant and animal classification. The agreement was that Ray would write the volumes on plants, while Willughby dealt with the animals. Ray lived at Willughby's home, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham. In 1672 Willughby died unexpectedly, having completed the work on animals except for the birds and fishes. These were left for Ray to edit. Willughby had bequeathed him an annuity and asked him to tutor his three children, so Ray continued to live at Wollaton Hall. In 1673 Ray married Margaret Oakley, a governess in the Willughby household, and after a time Willughby's widow, Emma, forced the couple to leave. They went first to Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, in 1676. In 1677 they moved to Falborne Hall in Essex, and in 1679 they went to live in Black Notley, where Ray remained for the rest of his life. His health deteriorated slowly, but he continued studying and writing until he died on January 17, 1705.