BEFORE Charles Darwin there was John Ray, a 17th-century scientist who laid the foundations for botany and zoology in Britain.

Known also as ‘the father of English natural history’ Ray overturned Aristotle’s premise that all birds hibernated during the winter, he became the first person to use the terms ‘petal’ (at a time when the phrase ‘coloured leaf’ was used) and the first to produce a biological definition of the term species.

What’s more, he was born and died right here in Essex.

Ray was born on November 29, 1627, in Bakers Lane, Black Notley.

He was the third child of village blacksmith Roger Ray and his wife Elizabeth, a herbalist.

The young John was inquisitive and would spend hours watching his father at work in the forge.

Long walks with his mother through the Essex countryside looking for herbs to make into medicines for poorly villagers also sparked his interest in nature.

He attended Braintree Grammar School and perhaps would have followed his father’s trade, but for the fact he managed to gain a scholarship to Cambridge University when he was only 16, due to his passion for natural history.

For six years Ray studied at Trinity College and explored the countryside around the city.

He also grew plants in the garden by his room at his college, but his fascination with the natural world was really ignited after a bout of illness.

Ray later recounted how this led to a deepening of his interest in botany.

“I had been ill, physically and mentally, and had to rest from more serious study and so could ride or walk,” he said.

“There was leisure to contemplate by the way what lay constantly before the eyes and were so often trodden thoughtlessly underfoot, the various beauty of plants, the cunning craftsmanship of nature.”

While at university, Ray also began his book, Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium (Cambridge Catalogue).

The small pocketbook would be published in 1659 and was destined to initiate a new era in British botany.

Ray became a high-achieving student who quickly rose to become a tutor. He held many offices while at Cambridge, becoming a lecturer in Greek, mathematics and humanity.

According to the habit of the time, he would preach in his college chapel. He also became a parson naturalist – a cleric who saw the study of natural science as an extension of his religious work.

In 1667 Ray was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Ray went on to publish important works on botany, zoology, and natural theology. His classification of plants in his History of Plants, Historia Plantarum became the first modern text book on botany and an important step towards modern taxonomy.

In the book, published in 1686, he was also the first person to produce a biological definition of species.

“One species,” he argued, “never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.” With this insight Ray was sowing the seed of ideas that would lead, eventually, to Darwin’s famous work on evolution, The Origin of Species.

Ray rejected the system of ‘dichotomous division’ – the established way of classifying species according to a pre-conceived, either/or type system.

Instead he classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation.

In addition, Ray developed dendrochronology, explaining how to find the age of trees from the rings in their trunks. He frequently embarked on tours of Europe with his friends and pupils to study flora and fauna and would return laden with animal and vegetable species.

An expedition in 1662 to Wales and Cornwall with his good friend, the naturalist Francis Willughby was a turning point in his life.

Willughby and Ray agreed to undertake a study of the complete natural history of living things, with Ray responsible for the plant kingdom and Willughby the animal.

In 1673 Ray married Margaret Oakley, who was just 19 years old and 30 years his junior.

Despite the age difference, the couple went on to have four daughters and enjoyed a happy marriage.

In his later years, Ray began studying insects at his home, Dewlands in Black Notley. Because he suffered from ulcerated legs he was unable to walk through the countryside and collect specimens as he used to, so his wife and daughters increasingly assisted him by collected caterpillars and moths.

Ray was even able to study and record the complete life cycle of the butterfly for the first time.

He died in 1705 at the age of 77. His body was buried in the graveyard at Black Notley because, legend has it, he did not believe he was important enough to be buried inside the church.

There is a memorial to him in the church, however which reads:

‘A great descent lent nothing to his fame;

Virtue, not birth distinguished his high name

Titles and wealth he never strove to gain

Those he would rather merit than obtain.’

Scientists today believe that John Ray’s legacy cannot be overlooked. His work on species directly influenced Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, 200 years later.

Linnaeus’ work in turn was to inspire Charles Darwin.

Today there is a school named after Ray, an imposing statue of him outside Braintree District Museum and even a Ray Society at Cambridge.

Essex Highways has even created a ‘John Ray Walk’ – a nine-mile trek between Braintree and Witham to celebrate the life and achievements of the man who was known for remaining humble in his success.