Ray was born in the village of Black Notley, near Braintree, in the county of Essex, in the south east of England. He is said to have been born in the smithy, his father having been the local blacksmith.
He published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology. His classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum was an important step towards modern taxonomy. Ray rejected the system of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a pre-conceived, either/or type system, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation. Thus he advanced scientific empiricism against the deductive rationalism of the scholastics.
In 1986, to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Ray’s Historia Plantarum, there was a celebration of Ray’s legacy in Braintree. A "John Ray Gallery" was opened in Braintree Museum. The curator of this is Leslie Killin.