The only significant discovery in English science before 1660 was the circulation of the blood by William Harvey. After the turmoil of the Civil War however, a new spirit emerged in religion, politics and the study of man and nature not based on religious faith, biblical teaching or tradition, but on reason and inquiry.
Ray played a major role in these changes through his astonishing dedication in collecting specimens and developing systems of classification in the spheres of botany and zoology, relatively neglected previously; by questioning the earlier work, experimentation, field work and, in writing his comprehensive books, he laid the foundations of modern natural sciences.
In his book Synopsis Britannicarum of 1690, Ray wrote: ‘… I thank God to be alive still to see superstition overthrown, religion reformed, freedom restored and secured. Now that the favour of princes smiles upon the efforts and stimulates the industries of scholars, and all sound learning shows promise of wonderful advances’.
In his last years, Ray led a quiet and reclusive life, producing his books and researching and collecting. He was recognised as a man of eminence, a leader who had the power to inspire others and instil in them his own love of nature.
‘The output of those years is probably the largest in sheer mass of material that any one man has produced since Aristotle’. Charles Raven, 1942
Ray corresponded with scientists and writers, including Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum, and John Aubrey, the diarist. His letters to friends show he liked sweetmeats, beer and tobacco, although his friends were concerned by his lean body which he said he kept by eating a healthy, natural diet. As he grew older and frailer, he preferred to concentrate on his work rather than seek public acclaim.
He died in 1705 and was buried in the same little church at Black Notley where he had been christened. His grave is marked by an obelisk erected in his honour by Henry Crompton, the Bishop of London, and other subscribers. It has a Latin inscription composed by the Reverend William Coyte, of Balliol College, which was translated into equally elaborate English in Volume VIII of the General Dictionary, published in 1739. At one time, the obelisk was moved into the church to prevent damage by the weather, but was restored and moved outside in 1968 to stand alongside the table-tomb of his friend, Dr. Benjamin Allen.
Our Modern Sage dark Nature’s Secrets read:
From the tall Cedar to the hyssop’s bed:
From the unwieldiest Beast of land or deep,
To the least insect that has power to creep.
Nor did his artful labours only shew
Those plants which on earth’s wide surface grew,
But piercing ev’n her darkest entrails through,
All that was wise, all that was treat, he knew.
Translated extract from the inscription on Ray’s tomb.