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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gray, John Edward (1800–1875)

by J. H. Calaby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Edward Gray (1800-1875), naturalist, was born on 12 February 1800 at Walsall, Staffordshire, England, the second son of Samuel Frederick Gray. He began to study for the medical profession but abandoned it and took up zoology. In 1824 he joined the staff of the British Museum as an assistant in the zoological department, of which he was keeper in 1840-74. In 1826 he married Maria Emma Gray, widow of a cousin. He died on 7 March 1875. He was a member of many scientific societies and in 1832 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

When Gray came to the British Museum the zoological collections were small, unimportant and without registers. Under his direction and as a result of his tremendous energy the collections became the most important in the world, and he organized the production and publication of a large series of descriptive catalogues, many of which he wrote himself. He was a voluminous writer and published descriptions of large numbers of new species of animals which poured into the British Museum from all over the world. A list of the books, memoirs and papers written by him, issued after his death, contains 1162 titles.

Gray's term at the British Museum coincided with the most active period of Australian exploration and settlement. Most of the specimens of animals collected on surveying voyages and exploring expeditions before 1850, and collections made by immigrant naturalists such as Ronald Gunn in Tasmania and by John Gould and his field workers, John Gilbert and Frederick Strange, were acquired by the British Museum. Gray described and named scientifically many of these new animals, particularly reptiles and mammals, but also some frogs, fishes, a few species of birds, and some invertebrates. Many of the common Australian animals, particularly reptiles, have scientific names given to them by Gray. His descriptions were issued in English natural history periodicals, catalogues of the British Museum, and appendixes to narratives of voyages and journals of exploration such as those by Phillip Parker King, John Lort Stokes, Joseph Jukes and Edward John Eyre. Gray's appendixes to George Grey's journals are particularly important as they contain the original descriptions of a considerable number of reptiles and mammals, and also give complete lists of all Australian mammals, reptiles, and frogs and their geographical distributions, known at that date.

Gray's contribution to Australian zoology was second only to that of Gould among his contemporaries. His published works are still frequently consulted by students of the classification and nomenclature of Australian animals. The superficial nature of his descriptions, however, and the many unnecessary changes of scientific names that he made, cause confusion even to this day. Fortunately the great majority of the type specimens which were before him when he wrote the descriptions are still preserved in the British Museum, registered under the numbering system he invented, and most problems can be solved by reference to these originals.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of the Collections Contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, vol 2 (Lond, 1906)
  • E. Newman, ‘Obituary Notice of the Late Dr Gray’, Zoologist, vol 10, May 1875, pp 4466-68.

Citation details

J. H. Calaby, 'Gray, John Edward (1800–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


12 February 1800
Walsall, Staffordshire, England


7 March 1875

Cultural Heritage