John Ray Biography

John Ray, the earliest of parson-naturalists, was a renowned naturalist, philosopher, and theologian of the 17th century. Known as the “father of natural history,” Ray made significant contributions to the fields of botany, zoology, and taxonomy. He was the first to provide a biological definition of the term “species” and published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology. Despite facing religious persecution, Ray’s dedication to his studies and observations laid the foundation for future research. His numerous works, totaling 172, are now housed in prestigious libraries in London.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In November
  • Died At Age: 77
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Margaret Oakley
  • Quotes By John Ray
  • British Men
  • Died on: January 17, 1705
  • Place of death: Black Notley
  • Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, University of Cambridge

Childhood & Early Life

John Ray was born in the village of Black Notley, near Braintree. His father Roger Ray was the village blacksmith and mother Elizabeth Ray was an amateur herbalist and medical practitioner.

At 16, he was enrolled at the Cambridge University, where he studied at the Trinity College and Catharine Hall. In 1649, he was selected as a minor fellow at Trinity and later a major fellow.

From 1651, he held various academic positions as a fellow at Trinity, teaching Greek, humanities and mathematics. He also served as a praelector, junior dean and college steward.

He was well versed with preaching, which he often did at the college chapel and also at the Great St Mary’s. On December 23, 1660, he officially received his holy orders. That year he published, ‘Catalogue of Cambridge plants’.


On August 24, 1662, he resigned from his fellowship along with 13 other fellows as they could not subscribe to the ‘Bartholomew Act’ of 1662.

His religious beliefs were in sync with the ones imposed under the restoration of Charles II of England. He was thus technically a nonconformist but continued with the Established Church of England.

From the spring of 1663 to March 1666, he went on a tour of Europe along with some of his pupils like Francis Willughby, Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon.

In 1668, he came out with his work titled, ‘Tables of plants’ and ‘Catalogue of English plants plus Fasiculus (an appendix)’. He subsequently published, ‘Catalogue of English proverbs’.

In 1669, along with Francis Willughby, he came out with his first piece of work on Philosophical Transactions titled, ‘Experiments concerning the Motion of Sap in Trees’.

In 1673, he published, ‘Observations topographical, moral, and physiological, made on a Journey through part of the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, and France’, his account on his foreign travels.

With his 1686 released book titled, ‘History of Plants’, he became the first person to conceive the biological definition of the term, ‘species’. That year he also published the work titled, ‘History of Fishes +Frontis & 187 Engraved Plates’.

In the 1690s, he published three volumes of his writings on religion. The most well-known among these publications was, ‘The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation’.

In 1691, he published one of his seminal and most popular works titled, ‘The Wisdom of God’. This work of his was later plagiarised by William Paley in his later work titled, ‘Natural Theology’.

Some of his other works in the 1690s decade include, ‘Synopsis of Animals and Reptiles’, ‘Collection of Travels’, ‘ Collection of European Plants’, ‘Plants of Each County’ and ‘Brief Dissertation’.

Awards & Achievements

In 1667, he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1673, he wedded Margaret Oakley of Launton.

In 1676, he began to live in Sutton Coldfield and the following year, he relocated to Falborne Hall in Essex.

In 1679, he moved to Black Notley, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here, he suffered from poor health and chronic sores.

He died at the age of 77 in Black Notley.

There are a total of 172 of his works, which are considered very unique and rare. They are held in The British Library, Euston, London, The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, The University of Cambridge Library, Library of Trinity College Cambridge and The Natural History Museum Library, South Kensington, London.


This 17th century English naturalist was the first person to give a biological definition of the term ‘species’.

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