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John Ray: in a class[ification] of his own

Library Graduate Trainee Jessica Hudson explores the significance of John Ray's work in sowing the seeds of modern taxonomy.
Jessica Hudson

Hello, I’m Jess. I’m one of this year’s new Library Graduate Trainees and I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about someone who hails from my ‘neck of the woods’ - the naturalist John Ray.

From boyhood to botany

Ray was born on 29th November 1627 in Black Notley near Braintree in Essex. He came from relatively humble beginnings (his father was a blacksmith and his mother was known as a herbalist) but through the support of the vicar of Braintree (Samuel Collins) the evidently bright, young Ray was sent up to Cambridge in 1644 to pursue studies in rhetoric, logic and grammar, graduating from Trinity in 1648. But it was an interest in plants that became his ‘growing concern’.

Portrait of John Ray (1627-1705) by an unknown artist

Travels and tomes

With no formal degree in botany available during this period, Ray (unlike many who came to botany through medicine) pursued a course of autodidactic study, amassing knowledge through reading and practical experience, direct study and fieldwork. He undertook excursions to develop an understanding of local flora and eventually broadened his horizons by journeying through Europe (1663-1666) in the company of Francis Willughby .

They had one (modest) aim in mind during their travels – the classification of all living things, with Ray naturally taking the lead in all things botanical. Sadly, Willughby died in 1672 before their researches could be published and it was left to Ray to organise and disseminate his friend’s material. Mercifully, he still found time to produce his own works.

History of the Historia

Ray’s great masterwork, the Historia Plantarum, was published 1686-1704 in three large volumes. In Ray’s own words the impetus for publication was ‘to facilitate the learning of plants without a guide or demonstrator, by so methodising them and giving certain and obvious characteristic notes of the genera that it shall not be difficult for any man to find out infallibly any plant especially being assisted by the figure of it’.

Alas in this last point the Historia summarily failed. The volumes were destined never to be illustrated. Ray’s own financial resources were limited and the posthumous publication of Willughby’s Historia Piscium (which Ray had laboured over) had swallowed up those of the Royal Society who may otherwise have provided financial backing. Ultimately, the (eternal) problem of not being able to secure funding left the tomes unadorned. Their value therefore rests solely with the text.

Title page of the 1686 edition of Ray’s Historia Plantarum held at Kew.

Ground-breaking taxonomy

The Historia was no common herbal, it was truly comprehensive. Examining and categorising thousands of plants, the books methodically detail everything from plant structures, physiology/anatomy and habitats to medicinal uses. Written in Latin, it offers its readers a rigorous and systematic examination of the plant world, which builds and elaborates upon the groundwork of Ray’s previous publications (namely Cambridge Catalogue, 1660 and Methodus Plantarum, 1682) to give the fullest expression of his ground-breaking taxonomic system.

This was based on the concept of species as a defining measure of classification - a system which, unlike anything before it, looked at plant morphology and shared characteristics, recognising for the first time monocots and dicots and using the terms ‘petal’ and ‘pollen’. This was Ray’s botanical legacy. He sowed the seeds for future generations of naturalists and botanists: 

Extract from Historia Plantarum

'In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After a long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation of seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individual or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species... one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.

Ray's legacy

In January 1705, less than a year after the final tome’s publication, Ray died. The impact of his work lived on however, proving an influencing factor for many years to come. Indeed in 1844 the John Ray Society was founded which celebrates and commemorates Ray’s work to this day.

- Jess - 


Bibliography and further information

The following titles are all available in the library at Kew and further details are available via the library's online catalogue:


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