Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gray, John Edward
GRAY, JOHN EDWARD (1800–1875), naturalist, born at Walsall, Staffordshire, 12 Feb. 1800, was the second son of Samuel Frederick Gray [q. v.], chemist, then of Walsall. He was a weakly child, and for some years was unable to eat meat. He was intended for the medical profession. His father moved to London, and when he was eighteen he entered the laboratory of a chemist in Cripplegate. Before this he had been elected by his fellow-students to lecture on botany at the Borough School of Medicine, the regular lecturer, apparently Richard Anthony Salisbury [q. v.], being incapacitated. Shortly afterwards he entered the medical schools of St. Bartholomew's and the Middlesex hospitals, and the classes held by Mr. Taunton in Hatton Garden and Maze Pond. He taught the principles of Jussieu, in conjunction with his father, at the Middlesex Hospital and at Sloane Street Botanical Garden, for a few years before 1821. In that year the ‘Natural Arrangement of British Plants’ was issued under his father's name, though the synoptical portion, by far the larger part of the work, was due to Gray, with the assistance of Salisbury, Edward and John Joseph Bennett, De Candolle, and Dunal. About this time he had been introduced to Dr. Leach, keeper of the zoological department of the British Museum, and, through him, to Sir Joseph Banks, in whose library he transcribed many zoological and botanical notes for his father's use; but he suggests that Robert Brown, then Banks's librarian, was rather reluctant to assist him. In 1822 he was proposed by Haworth, Salisbury, and others, for election into the Linnean Society, but was blackballed, the alleged reason being the disrespect shown to the president, Sir J. E. Smith, by his references in the ‘Natural Arrangement’ to Smith and Sowerby's ‘English Botany’ as ‘Sowerby's “English Botany.”’ It was not until 1857 that Gray was elected a fellow of the society. Piqued by his rejection, Gray turned his attention mainly to zoology. In 1819 he had joined the London Philosophical Society, and he now became fellow and secretary of the Entomological Society, and in 1824 was engaged by John George Children [q. v.], Dr. Leach's successor, to assist in preparing a catalogue of the British Museum collection of reptiles. In 1826 he married Maria Emma [see Gray, Maria Emma], the widow of a cousin. From the date of his entering the British Museum began his remarkable activity in contributing to scientific literature, especially on zoological subjects. Between 1824 and 1863 he had written no fewer than 497 papers, the titles of which occupy twenty-eight columns of the Royal Society's Catalogue, while a privately printed ‘List of Books, Memoirs, and Miscellaneous Papers,’ completed down to the date of his death, enumerates 1,162. His interests were not by any means confined to zoology, or even to natural history; for he took an active part in questions of social, educational, and sanitary reform. The establishment of public playgrounds, coffee-taverns, and provincial museums engaged his attention; he was a promoter of the Blackheath Mechanics' Institution, one of the earliest institutions of the kind; he was a strong advocate for the more frequent opening of museums free of charge, and spent many of his vacations in visiting continental museums to inspect their organisation; he was a strenuous opponent of the decimal system of coinage; and he claimed to have been the first to suggest (in 1834) a uniform rate of letter-postage to be prepaid by means of stamps. In 1862 he published a ‘Hand-catalogue of Postage-stamps,’ which has since run into several editions.
Among his earlier zoological publications were ‘Spicilegia Zoologica,’ 1828–40; ‘The Zoological Miscellany,’ edited by him, 1831–1845; ‘Illustrations of Indian Zoology,’ 1832–1834; an edition of Turton's ‘Land and Fresh-water Shells,’ 1840; the zoology of the voyages of Captain Beechy, 1839, H.M.S. Sulphur, 1843, H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, 1844, and the vertebrata in that of H.M.S. Samarang, 1848; and the privately printed ‘Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley,’ 1846. In 1832 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; he was an original member of the Zoological, Royal Geographical, Royal Microscopical, Entomological, and Palæontographical Societies; served for many years as vice-president of the first named; and was also president of the Botanical and Entomological Societies. In 1840 he succeeded J. G. Children as keeper of the zoological department of the British Museum, a post which he retained until the December preceding his death. Though subsequently to 1840 he issued several independent zoological works, such as the ‘Synopsis of British Mollusks,’ 1852, the great work of his life was the increasing the collection in his charge, and the organisation and editing of the splendid series of descriptive catalogues of its treasures. Many of these he wrote himself, including those of seals and whales, monkeys, lemurs, and fruit-eating bats, carnivorous, pachydermatous, edentate, and ruminant mammals, lizards and shield-reptiles; and in 1852 the university of Munich sent him the diploma of doctor of philosophy, for having formed ‘the largest zoological collection in Europe.’ Much of his later zoological work is said to have been detrimental to the science on account of the needless number of genera and species which he introduced. His strenuous endeavours to improve the national zoological collection in face of great opposition and often at his own expense deserve the highest praise. Returning in later life to the studies of his youth, he in 1864 published a ‘Handbook of British Waterweeds or Algæ;’ and in 1866 issued an unpublished fragment by his former teacher, R. A. Salisbury, ‘The Genera of Plants,’ an interesting early experiment in natural classification. In 1870 Gray was attacked by paralysis of the right side, and at the close of 1874, after fifty years' service, resigned his position at the Museum, but had not quitted his official residence before his death on 7 March following. Though his strongly outspoken hatred of all shams made him enemies, his generosity, integrity, and industry gained him general respect.[Athenæum, 13 March 1875; List of Books, Memoirs … with a few Historical Notes, 1872–1875; Portraits of Men of Eminence, 1863, with photographic portrait; Journal of Botany, xiii. 127; Gardener's Chronicle, 1875, i. 335; Trans. Bot. Soc. Edinb. xii. 409.]