by Jennifer Brown
One of the great joys that anybody researching an historical figure will recognise is to work with primary sources, especially something they have written by hand. On a recent research visit to the University of Cambridge for the John Ray project I had just that opportunity.
John Ray’s connection to Cambridge spanned nearly 20 years. He was a student at Cambridge between 1644 and 1647, first at St Catherine’s College and then Trinity College. Graduating with his BA in 1647/8, he was made a Minor Fellow at Trinity in 1649 (a fellow is the term used for academic staff at the university), and a Major Fellow two years later. This was followed by a succession of appointments: Greek lecturer (1651), Mathematics Lecturer (1653) and Reader in Humanities (1655). Remarkably, however, the majority of the natural history research for which he is now remembered was actually conducted after he was forced to leave Cambridge for conscientious reasons relating to religion in 1662.
Despite this termination of his connection with Cambridge both colleges hold a large archive on Ray. This relates both to his time at the University and his subsequent work in natural history. The esteem in which he is held there is indicated by his inclusion on the ‘Great Scientists’ stained glass window in Trinity College Chapel. Ray features here alongside other great former students of the college including Newton and Isaac Barrow. He has therefore been equated with some of the biggest and best known names in science.
My day was divided between St Catherine’s library and The Wren Library at Trinity College. I would like to thank both libraries for their welcome and for retrieving their John Ray archives for me. At St Catherine’s I viewed a variety of material, including first editions of nearly all of Ray’s works, and material relating to the John Ray Society. This society was founded for students of Natural History at the College and was named after Ray ‘in commemoration of John Ray the eminent botanist who was a former member of the College’ as stated in the minutes of their first meeting.
In the afternoon it was on to Trinity College. Here I had a very interesting meeting with Dr. Sachiko Kusukawa, a member of the John Ray Trust and researcher into the history of illustrations in science. The importance of illustrations to Ray’s works is a theme I will be exploring in more detail over the coming months. I then disappeared into the beautiful Wren library for the afternoon to view some of the true highlights of my trip. These were the 17th Century admissions registers for Trinity College which included John Ray’s name, and a group of letters between Ray and correspondent Timothy Burrell, written between 1690 and 1701. These were evidence of the very neat handwriting that Ray maintained throughout his life, and also contained evocative summaries of his life after he had left Cambridge written in his own words.
I will be showing a number of the photographs that I took at Cambridge during my talk on John Ray on Wednesday 22nd January at 3pm. This includes photographs of Ray’s letters and the admissions register. I hope you are able to join us then to find out more. Entry is £3 on the door, but it is advisable to call us in advance to reserve a place on 01376 328868, or email email@example.com