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John Ray

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John Ray

In 1662, the Cambridge Fellow, John Ray (1627-1705), decided to relinquish his fellowship and devote his studies to the exploration of natural philosophy, especially botany. He had already demonstrated a keen interest in all things botanical and by that date had published a catalogue of the plants in the neighbourhood of Cambridge (1660). Following his 1658 journey throughout England and Wales he had sought to cast his net wider and include all English plants and, with this in mind, he continued his botanical explorations of various parts of England. His friendship with Francis Willughby (1635-1672) led to a European tour, including the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Malta, Switzerland and France. As Mandelbrote (2004) notes, these journeys enabled Ray to create a huge collection of plant specimens. These would later form the basis of his major works on botanical taxonomy.


John Ray, Historia plantarum (London, 1686-1704), vol1, title page.

Unlike Tournefort’s system, Ray’s system was essentially a natural system using all parts of the plant. Ray realised that two basic forces influenced the development of a plant: first and most importantly from the point of view of taxonomy,  the inherent characteristics or what is now known as the genotype of the plant  as derived from the seed, and secondly the effects of the environment or the phenotype  of the organism.

Ray considered that ‘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 long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed.’ He considered that only the inherent characteristics should be included for taxonomy purposes. ‘Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals 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…’* This is the approach still taken by modern botanists (Davis and Heywood, 1963).
According to Vines (1913), Ray had been deeply impressed by the work of the Hamburg philosopher and botanist Joachim Jung (1587-1657), whose Isagoge Phytoscopia a philosophical and scientific treatise on plant morphology was published after his death in 1678. Ray however, as he relates in his Catalogous plantarum circa cantabrigiam nascentium (1660), had obtained a manuscript copy of this book through Samuel Hartlib and had incorporated many of Jung’s definitions in the glossary. Although he did not dispense with the sacrosanct division of plants into Trees and Herbs as Jung had done, he subsequently incorporated the Isagoge into the first volume of his Historia Plantarum (1686) and it was from the Historia Plantarum that Linnaeus learnt Jung’s principles and terminology of descriptive botany, the basis of his system of classification (Vines, Jarvis).

Ray’s experience of editing Willughby’s Historia piscium (1686) made him very aware of the cost of producing lavishly illustrated works of natural history. Following Willughby’s edeath in 1672, Ray had taken over his project and added much new material – indeed Mandelbrote (2004) notes that the book was ‘largely Ray’s own work’. The book included a staggering 187 plates and almost bankrupted its publisher, the Royal Society – indeed, when Newton’s Principia came to the attention of the Society in the following year, members, still smarting from the financial aftermath of the Historia piscium sponsored the work but could not carry the costs of publishing it (leaving Edmond Halley to nobly carry the costs). All of which meant that when Ray came to publish his monumental Historia plantarum, he was concerned about the expense of engravings, though he recognised that many readers would look ‘on a  history of plants without figures as a book of geography without maps’. (Letter of 22nd October 1684 Ray to Dr Robinson).


John Ray, Historia plantarum (London, 1686-1704), vol. 1, p. 27.

The only  image in the first volume of  Ray’s Historia plantarum (on p 27) is a composite drawing of the germination of  radish seedlings taken  from Malpighi’s Anatome Plantarum or Anatomy of Plants (Tab LII, Fig 319 ) printed in 1675, combined with  a drawing of  the germination of a sycamore seed probably by Ray himself.  Ray had  first used this drawing in his  earlier Methodus Plantarum of 1682 which rejected classifications based on localities or properties in favour of ones based on the structure of plants, drawing on Ray’s own studies of seeds and the specific differences of plants  and on the discoveries of Marcello Malpighi.


John Ray, Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum (London, 1690), plate 2.

The second image from one of Ray’s works is taken from the first edition of his Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicorum 1690. Subularia lacustris or Calamistrum herba aquatica alpina is a small aquatic plant. Linnaeus notes Ray’s mention of the plant in his Catalogus plantarum Angliae (1677)  but reclassified it as Isoetes lacustris from the Greek isos equal and etes year ie  ‘equal at all seasons of the year’ or evergreen. Commonly known as Quillwort and ‘Merlynn’s Grass’, a name with  interesting  Arthurian resonances considering Ray says it was found by D Lloyd in  a lake on the summit of Snowden. It is also found in  acid lakes in the West and North of  Ireland (Webb, 2012).

Isoetes lacustris is a lycophyte ie a plant which does not have flowers but produces spores. Eaten by fish, birds, pigs and cattle and apparently occasionally by humans in Europe, it also was thought to have medicinal uses.** According to Pfeiffer, Ray (1696) says the plant ‘gives out a melancholy fluid used in affections of the spleen and liver’. Linnaeus referenced some plant  images  from   the later third edition of Ray Synopsis (1724),  edited by Dillenius, and used this edition to convert the names used by Ray for English plants  into the Linnaean classification in his Flora Anglica (1754, 1759).


John Ray, Historia plantarum (London, 1686-1704), vol 1, p. 1.

* Citation by Wilkins from Cain 1999, from Ray 1686 Historia Plantarum Volume I, Book I, ch. XX, page 40.

** These are not recommended by the Worth Library!


Egerton, F. N. (2005) Commentary  A History of the Ecological Sciences,Part 18: John Ray and His Associates Frances Willughby and William Derham. Available online at:

Davis, P. H. and Heywood, V. H. (1963), Principles of Angiosperm Taxonomy 1st Edition (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd).

Jarvis, C. (2007), Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types (London: The Linnaean Society of London in Association with the Natural History Museum).

Linnaeus, C. (1753), Species Plantarum (Stockholm), vol. 2, p. 1100.

Linnaeus, C. (1973), Flora Anglica 1754 (London, The Ray Society), p.17.

Pfeiffer, N. E. (1922),  ‘Monograph of the Isoetaceace’ in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden Vol 9, pp. 79-233 (at pp. 79-83).

Ray, J. (1973), Synopsis methodical Stirpium Britannicarum 1724 (London, The Ray Society), pp. 256, 257.

Vines, S. H. (1913), ‘Robert Morison 1620-1683 and John Ray1627-1705’ in Makers of British Botany A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists, edited by F. W. Oliver (Cambridge University Press).

Webb’s (2012), An Irish Flora 8th (eds) Parnell, J and Curtis, T (Cork University Press), pp. 2-3.


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