In gauging Ray's position as a botanist, Haller's wholesale statement (Bibl. Botanica) that he was ‘the greatest botanist in the memory of man’ is of less value than the opinion of one so well known for his enthusiastic admiration of Linnæus as Sir J. E. Smith. Ray was, Smith says, ‘the most accurate in observation, the most philosophical in contemplation, and the most faithful in description, amongst all the botanists of our own, or perhaps any other, time.’ A more modern (German) critic, Julius Sachs (op. cit.), while insisting on Ray's indebtedness to Joachim Jung, points out the great advances the English botanist made, not only in classification, but also in histology and physiology. Jung (1587–1657) invented a comparative terminology for the parts of plants, and occupied himself also with the theory of classification, but published nothing. Ray, however, saw some manuscript notes of his as early as 1660, probably through the agency of Samuel Hartlib; and when Jung's pupil, Johann Vagetius, printed the master's ‘Isagoge Phytoscopica’ in 1678, Ray incorporated most of it, with full acknowledgment, into his ‘Historia Plantarum’ (vol. i. 1686), criticising, expanding, and supplementing it. ‘Enriched by Ray's good morphological remarks,’ says Sachs, ‘Jung's terminology passed to Linnæus, who adopted it as he adopted everything useful that literature offered him, improving it here and there, but impairing its spirit by his dry systematising manner.’ Before the dawn of modern physics or chemistry, it was impossible for physiology to advance far; but Ray's experiments on the movements of plants and on the ascent of the sap went almost as far as we can conceive possible under the circumstances, forestalling many conclusions only rediscovered of late years. Sachs speaks of the introduction to the ‘Historia’ in which Ray's experiments are described as ‘a general account of the science in fifty-eight pages, which, printed in ordinary size, would itself make a small volume, and which treats of the whole of theoretical botany in the style of a modern textbook.’
Of Ray's classification, the same authority, representing the most recent botanical opinion, also says: ‘Though he was not quite clear as regards the distinction, which we now express by the words dicotyledonous and monocotyledonous embryo, yet he may claim the great merit of having founded the natural system in part upon this difference in the formation of the embryo. He displays more conspicuously than any systematist before Jussieu the power of perceiving the larger cycles of affinity in the vegetable kingdom, and of defining them by certain marks. These marks, moreover, he determines not on a priori grounds, but from acknowledged relationships. But it is only in the main divisions of his system that he is thus true to the right course; in the details he commits many and grievous offences against his own method.’
Though the purity of Ray's Latin has formed the topic of many encomia, Ray's English style is perhaps hardly sufficiently distinguished to secure for him any great position in general literature. His merits as a writer on other topics than natural science are those of the man of science who amasses materials with painstaking care and critical capacity. John Locke, speaking of his ‘Travels’ (1673), mentions Ray's brief yet ingenious descriptions of everything that he saw, and his enlargement upon everything that was curious and rare; but it is only at the present day, since the rise of the scientific study of dialect and folklore, that the value of some of his collections, such as those of proverbs and rare words, is fully realised. Contrary to what has been sometimes said of him, Ray was never a mere compiler. He well knew how to adopt and combine the results of others with his own investigations, but he never blindly copied the statements of others, while he always acknowledged his obligations (cf. Sachs, History of Botany, p. 69).
There is a bust of Ray by Roubiliac, and oil portraits at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Engravings by Elder and Vertue, from a picture by Faithorne, were prefixed to some copies of his various works, and one by W. Hibbert is in the ‘Select Remains.’ They represent him as of fair complexion and emaciated appearance, agreeing with Calamy's description of him as consumptive. As early as 1686 he complained of the exposed situation of his house and of himself as ‘one who is subject to colds, and whose lungs are apt to be affected,’ and he began to suffer from severe ulcers in the legs. Linnæus perpetuated the name of Ray in the genus Rajania in the yam tribe, transposing Plumier's Jan Raia. In 1844 the Ray Society was established for the publication of works dealing with natural history, and among their first volumes were the ‘Memorials of John Ray,’ including Derham's ‘Life,’ the notices by Sir J. E. Smith in Rees's ‘Cyclopædia,’ and by Cuvier and Dupetit Thouars, in the ‘Biographie Universelle,’ and the itineraries, and ‘The Correspondence of John Ray,’ including the ‘Philo-