University of Cambridge (1644-1662)

Ray had a stellar career as a student and then a Fellow at the University of Cambridge (1644-1662). This came to an end in 1662 as result of religious upheaval caused by the restoration of the monarchy.

Studying at Cambridge

Ray was the son of a village blacksmith, but owing to his exceptional ability achieved a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. He started at the University as a ‘sizar’ in June 1644, first at Catherine Hall as requested in the will of his sponsor, Thomas Hobbs, but soon after transferring to Trinity College. The sizarship was a fixed allowance for the maintenance of poor students.

At Trinity, Ray met Isaac Barrow who was educated within a few miles of Ray at Felsted School. Considered tutor James Duport’s most brilliant pupils, the young men became great friends.

When Ray arrived in Cambridge the primary teaching focus was Aristotelian Scholasticism. The main subjects were Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric and teaching was carried out through debates between opponents on standard themes. Students were judged on the style of the oration and the quality of their Latin. The aim was not to generate new knowledge and learning. Ray wrote in 1660 that he deplored the lack of interest in ‘experimental philosophy and the ingenious sciences of mathematics’ at Cambridge.

Teaching at Cambridge

After he graduated with a B.A. in 1648 at the age of 21, Ray was elected a Minor Fellow. He was a Latin and Hebrew scholar and was appointed Greek Lecturer in 1651, Mathematical Lecturer in 1653 and Humanities Reader in 1655. It is likely that he taught Newton during this time.

Illness in 1650 led to a long period of convalescence which Ray used to explore the countryside around him and collect plants as he had in his childhood. He quickly realised the plants had no standard names so he decided to produce the first-ever book of local plants. This Catalogue of Cambridge Plants, published in 1660, was a work of such scientific importance that its effects are still with us today. Its success encouraged Ray to embark on a countrywide survey of plants. He also kept a small garden In Trinity to cultivate plants he had collected or sent to him by his friends.

Although natural history was not part of the Cambridge curriculum Ray found help from others at the University, including John Worthington, the master of Jesus College; John Wilkins, Master of Trinity; Henry More at Christ’s and Ralph Cudworth. His friends and pupils Philip Skippon, John Nidd, and Francis Willughby who would become his lifelong benefactor, also helped Ray.

However, Ray left Cambridge in 1662 as a matter of religious conscience, a great fortune for natural history. Thanks to the ongoing financial support of Willughby he was able to devote the rest of his life to studying the natural world. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II passed the Act of Uniformity in 1662. This set down how public prayer and the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England were to be conducted. Academic staff at the University all also held formal religious status, and Ray himself had been ordained in 1660. He was therefore required to take this oath if he wished to continue at Cambridge. However he felt unable to agree with the terms of the Act, and like many others who did not subscribe to it he left the University in 1662. He began a period of travelling, studying the natural world around him.

Excerpt from the Trinity College Admissions Register 1642-1660 showing Ray’s admission. Reproduced with the permission of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge
Stained glass window in Trinity College Chapel commemorating John Ray