Saturday 20 April 2013

A little-known British botanical hero?

John Ray (1627-1705)
Any idea who wrote Britain's first ever county Flora? Or who first grouped plants under monocotyledons and dicotyledons? Or who, half a century before Linnaeus, asked ‘what is a species’ and came up with a definition that still stands up today?  The answer to all three questions is: John Ray, aka the father of English natural history. 

John Ray (1627-1705) was an all-round naturalist, interested in mammals, birds, fish and insects as well as plants. As the Ray Society points out, "It was Ray's search for ... a natural order to life that laid the foundation for the studies of the natural world leading on to Linnaeus and to Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'."

So, apart from his pioneering work and lasting influence on natural history, why else are botanists in the 21st century still talking about John Ray? One reason is the recent, award-winning, book 'John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue (1660)' by Philip Oswald and Chris Preston, two eminent BSBI botanists who also sit on our Publications Committee

David Pearman, Chris Preston & Trevor Dines (l-r)
at the BSBI/RBGE Conference, September 2012.
The Society for the History of Natural History applauded the "deep levels of erudition and scholarship their joint work revealed" and was impressed enough to award its Thackray Medal for 2012 to the authors, for this first complete translation of Britain's first county Flora, originally published in Latin in 1660. The Ray Society, who published 'John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue (1660)', has kindly agreed to offer a huge £30 discount to any BSBI member who wishes to buy a copy. Please email me at so that I can reassure the Ray Society that you are a current BSBI member and then you will be able to order your copy for only £45 (usual price £75).  
Chris Preston (pictured above left) spoke at last year's BSBI/RBGE Mapping Conference about natural history recording, and the enormous international influence our British botanists have had. Chris's paper will appear in the latest issue of New Journal of Botany (which also has a review of the book). The paper focuses on the last fifty years of recording, but if you want to find out where it all started, then you need to look at John Ray's first county Flora and find out why he is still lauded as the father of English natural history.

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