The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 28. Ray and Willughby

But Ray has other claims on our regard. He and Francis Willughby, both of Trinity college, attacked a similar problem in the animal kingdom. Willughby was the only son of wealthy and titled parents, while Ray was the son of a village blacksmith. But the older universities are great levellers, and Ray succeeded in infusing into his fellow student at Cambridge his own genuine love for natural history. With Willughby, he started forth on his methodical investigations of animals and plants in all the accessible parts of the world. Willughby died young and bequeathed a small benefaction and his manuscripts to his older friend. After his death, Ray undertook to revise and complete his Ornithology, and therein paid great attention to the internal anatomy, to the habits and to the eggs of most of the birds he described. He, further, edited Willughby’s History of Fishes, but perpetuated the mistake of his predecessors in retaining whales among that group. In rather rationalistic mood, he argues that the fish which swallowed Jonah must have been a shark. Perhaps the weakest of their three great histories—the History of Insects—was such owing to the fact that Ray edited it in his old age.

Ray was always a fine field naturalist, and his catalogues of Cambridgeshire plants long remained a classic. We may, perhaps, sum up the contributions of this great naturalist in the words of Miall:

  • During his long and strenuous life he introduced many lasting improvements—fuller descriptions, better definitions, better associations, better sequences. He strove to rest his distinctions upon knowledge of structure, which he personally investigated at every opportunity.… His greatest single improvement was the division of the herbs into Monocotyledons and Dicotyledons.