Born on Bakers Lane in Black Notley in 1627, Ray, often referred to as the ‘father of natural history’, was a local man who revolutionised the way we understand nature. His work has been highly significant within scientific circles, but is also important in our everyday understanding of plants and animals. For example, he coined the use of the terms petal and pollen and discovered that trees could be dated from their rings. A prolific author, traveller and correspondent with life-long interests in linguistics and theology as well as the natural sciences his most famous work is the Historia Plantarum. The first two volumes were published in 1686 and 1688 and were over 1000 pages each covering the plants of Britain and Europe. To this was added a third volume in 1704 on parts of America, Jamaica, Africa, and Far East. Volume I is part of the collection at the Museum.
The son of the village blacksmith and a ‘wise’ woman (herbalist) he was educated at Braintree Grammar School, then located within a chapel of St Michael’s Church. At the age of 16 he won a scholarship to Cambridge, studying at Catherine Hall and Trinity College. He was clearly what today we would call a ‘polymath’ and after graduation he stayed on to lecture in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Mathematics and the Humanities, his academic success and reputation leading to various paid college appointments. On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the resumption of Canon [church] Law meant that ordination into the church was again a requirement for continuing as a university teacher, and he was duly ordained. His conscience, however, forced his resignation in 1662 rather than agree to the Act of Uniformity, although he remained a lay preacher for the rest of his life.
The first opportunity for Ray to test his observations on the influence of locality on plant varieties came while still in Cambridge, when he was recovering from illness. This resulted in the first ever published catalogue of a local flora, in 1660. Written in Latin, the common language of the european academic world, the plants identified were thus given names in Latin, in many cases for the first time. This interest in naming and classification of all living things became his life-long work. Study of the natural sciences was becoming a popular past-time for the leisured classes, many of whom went on to make serious scientific advances, and to which end the Royal Society was founded in 1660. Ray himself was admitted to the Society in 1667. To fund his research and travels Ray undertook private tutoring through which he met Francis Willughby, a pupil who became a friend and travelling companion, and who in his own right made significant study of fish and birds.
He moved to a base in Warwickshire on the Middleton estate of the Willughby family (see below) where he met his wife Margaret whom he married in 1673. After a long visit to Faulkbourne in 1677 they returned to Essex on a permanent basis in 1679 after the death of his mother, moving into her house ‘Dewlands’ in Black Notley. Contemporary local friends included apothecaries Drs Samuel Dale and Benjamin Allen both of whom were interested in botany and the natural sciences. Mark Catesby, from Castle Hedingham, was inspired by his studies with Ray and his subsequent travels and observations in America established the theory of seasonal bird migration (rather than hibernation!).
Ray’s quest for knowledge, and perhaps a restless personality turned him into a frantic traveller- journeys were undertaken (often on foot) from Land’s End to Glasgow between 1658 and 1662. In 1663 he embarked on a three year journey through Belgium, Holland, the Rhine Valley, Switzerland and Austria to Italy where they went as far south as Naples, climbing Vesuvius in 1664. Thence by boat to Sicily and Malta, returning through Italy, Switzerland and France. His prolific correspondence and diaries document not only his travels but his detailed observations on the natural world. Amongst his numerous correspondents and acquaintances were Hans Sloane and Samuel Pepys. Contemporary fellows of the Royal Society included John Evelyn, Isaac Newton, and Christopher Wren.
Further study of and experiments on trees and germination followed his Catalogue of English Plants (1670). This led to the first classification of plants into two main groups (monocotyledons and dicotyledons) as well as the explanation of bud production and leaf fall in trees, published as the New Method of Plants (1682). The shedding of leaves by trees previously having been attributed to the powers of magic and superstition! Ray’s work was the basis for the system of binomial taxonomy devised by the 18th century Swedish botanist Linnaeus. His observations on the effects of the environment on the development of species were equally an inspiration to Darwin. These ground-breaking works were followed by similar zoological analysis – Synopsis of Animals and Reptiles (1693) and Synopsis of Birds and Fishes (1713). His work on insects and their metamorphosis was unfortunately incomplete at the time of his death but his notes were published in 1710.
Less well known, but perhaps not surprising, was Ray’s interest in language and dialect. In 1670 he published his first edition of a Collection of English Proverbs, followed in 1674 by the Collection of English Words not Generally Used which was also reprinted in several editions. Further works reflecting his beliefs as a lay preacher were of a theological nature.
He lived, despite having had many illnesses, to the age of seventy-seven and died at his home ‘Dewlands’ (1705) in Black Notley and is buried in the churchyard in the village church.