A boy from Essex who made good

Today’s birthday boy was a geographical, when not a temporal, neighbour of mine, who is a special favourite of my blog friend John Wilkins and illustrative of a important point that I have already made several times on this blog and will certainly make often in the future. So who is this multi-functional scientific personality? John Ray was born on 29th November 1627 in Black Notley in Essex, which is only about 30 miles from the Essex village where I spent the first fifteen years of my life. Anyone who regularly reads Evolving Thoughts will also know that Mr Ray regularly turns up in John’s posts the reason for which I will mention at the end of explaining my third point from the opening sentence.


As I have mentioned more than once on this blog the so-called scientific revolution is almost always described as a revolution in astronomy with a little bit of physics on the side. As I have also explained more than once this is in fact a myth as in the 16th and 17th centuries fundamental developments took place in many different sciences as well as in quite a few of the humanities. An area where this was very much the case was in what are now known as the life sciences. In the Middle Ages the life sciences together with what would develop into the earth sciences, i.e. geology, mineralogy, metallurgy etc., were all subsumed under the one discipline natural history the standard reference work for which was Pliny’s Naturalis historia. *  This started to change in the 16th century following the introduction of the printed book, linear perspective and naturalism in art. Starting around 1520 a series of what I call coffee table books started to appear in Europe. These were large format books on plants, animals, mineralogy etc, which contained mind-blowing illustration of the subject discussed by the author. These illustrations were not simple pictures but scientific drawings illustrating the various features of the biological specimens being described. These in the mean time legendary volumes from such authors as Otto Brunfels, Leonhard Fuchs, Conrad Gesner, Georgius Agricola and Ulisse Aldrovandi are now regarded as the beginnings of the separate life and earth science disciplines, botany, zoology, geology etc. De fabrica from Vesalius, the book that founded modern anatomy also played a role as the Paduan school of anatomy that he started soon expanded to include comparative anatomy. However although the presentation of these books was new, modern and in some sense revolutionary their authors were still guided by the science and taxonomies of antiquity from Pliny and above all Aristotle. Even William Harvey the Paduan anatomist famous for his discovery of blood circulation and also for his claim that ‘everything comes from an egg’ was at heart a conservative Aristotelian. Ray coming at the end of the 17th century was different he represents a break with the past and a step into the future. Together with Francis Willughby, “Ray prepared the first systematic flora for a region – at first of Cambridgeshire, and later of Britain” (Wilkins 2009). In this work is Ray’s greatest contribution, quoting Wilkins, “Ray needed to define species, and he was the first to do so entirely in a biological context”. Ray’s work was an important and highly significant contribution to the science of taxonomy and was an important influence on the defining work of Linnaeus. I think that in a fair world in which the history of scientific development were not defined as the history of physics that Ray would be acknowledged as standing on a level with Galileo or Newton and not be regarded as some obscure biologist.

The quotes above are from John Wilkins excellent Species: A History of an Idea, University of California Press, 2009. This is a splendid contribution to the history of ideas and will almost certainly become known as a classic in its field. I can recommend it to anybody with an interest in the history of science and I know from personal experience that if you buy a copy there’s a chance that the author will come by sometime and sign it for you.

* A good book on Pliny in the Middle Ages is Arno Borst, Das Buch der Naturgeschichte: Plinius und seine Leser im Zeitalter des Pergaments. Heidelberg 1994.


Filed under History of science, Renaissance Science

11 responses to “A boy from Essex who made good

  1. I know from personal experience that if you buy a copy there’s a chance that the author will come by sometime and sign it for you.

    But you have to pay him in beer.

  2. jeb

    I think he may deserve the odd free pint as reward.

    The Profs. work on Ray and species helped me with a big headache concerning Sir Robert Moray, Martin Martin, Sir Robert Sybbald, Tancred Robertson and a particular species of goose.

    Reading two brief papers allowed me to start to place my interest in folk taxonomy in a wider and fuller historical context and I could start to make more sense out of the material I was looking at.

    Its unusual to come across work that is from a very diffrent subject area, which is so on topic and relevant.


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  4. If I buy it on Kindle, can I get a scan of his signature?

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  10. I might do that, if the purchaser lives in Australia. These days I don’t have a travel budget.

    There’s a new edition coming out in February 2018, by the way.

    I found out last week that Ray also contributed to mathematics.

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