John Ray and the Classification of Plants

John Ray. Line engraving after Mary Beale  Image Source: Wellcome Library, London

John Ray. Line engraving after Mary Beale
Image Source: Wellcome Library, London

On November 29, 1627, English naturalist John Ray was born. He published important works on botany, zoology, and natural theology. His classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum, was an important step towards modern taxonomy. He advanced scientific empiricism against the deductive rationalism of the scholastics and was the first to give a biological definition of the term species.

During his childhood, John Ray enjoyed watching his father working in the forge and taking long walks with his mother in the nature, collecting numerous herbs. He came to love the nature and especially plants and their medical uses. Ray was educated at the Braintree Grammar School, Catherine Hall at Cambridge University, and Trinity College. The student was especially talented in the fields of mathematics, languages and natural sciences. During a longer period of illness, Ray began to explore the countryside around Cambridgeshire where he slowly recovered and he later wrote about this period:

“there was leisure to contemplate by the way what lay constantly before the eyes and were so often trodden thoughtlessly underfoot… the shape, colour and structure of particular plants fascinated and absorbed me: interest in botany became a passion.”

He first published a catalogue of the plants he found in 1660 and it became known as the (probably) first book of local plants published in Britain. And over three hundred years later, the book is still considered to be relevant. [2,3] By that time, Ray already made the decision to extent his studies and intended to not only find, but also name and classify all living things and in order to do so, he began a long journey together with his friends across Britain and Europe. Next to his interest in plants, Ray could also perform studies on language, geology, and even industrial processes which he wrote down in several books. [2]

John Ray published the Catalogue of English Plants in 1670, which included a scientific record of English plants as well as an index with details of their possibilities in medical uses. Another one of his famous works was A Collection of English Proverbs, but, the Historia Plantarum was probably his most famous and most influential. It was published in three volumes between 1686 and 1704. [3] In the masterpiece, Ray intended to summarize all his knowledge of the plant world and up to this day, his descriptions are seen as “masterpieces of brevity and completeness“. The preface of the book contains a survey of all knowledge of the kingdom of plants back then and also summarized the works by contemporary researchers. In the first two volumes, about 7000 species of European plants are described and classified. The book is up to this day considered as a remarkable step in the development of science. [1]

To one of John Ray’s last impressive works belongs the theological book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, published in 1691. Later on, he devoted his life to the systematic study of insects, while the majority of the specimens were caught by his wife and daughters. Unfortunately, his Historia Insectorum remained unfinished. John Ray passed away on January 17, 1705. [2]

At yovisto, you may enjoy the video lecture on The Hidden Face of British Gardening by Professor Floud at Gresham College.


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