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Gray, George Robert (1808–1872), zoologist, was born on 8 July 1808 in Little Chelsea, London, the third of the four children of , naturalist and pharmacologist, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Forfeit (1777–1852). His older brother was . He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London, in 1820–24, and at an early age used to help John George Children (1777–1852) in arranging his insect collections.

In 1830 Gray was given the opportunity to work for Children at the British Museum (his brother John had worked there since 1824). Gray's first year was unpaid and during 1831 he was paid on a daily rate; in 1832 he became a member of the permanent staff. Initially he worked on the insect collection, but moved on to be responsible for the bird collection. On 28 July 1869 he was appointed senior assistant keeper of zoology, a post he held until his death.

Gray was a prolific writer. He published his first book, The Entomology of Australia, Part I, in 1833. Dedicating it to the duke of Sussex (then president of the Royal Society), Gray funded the work by subscription. He was one of several contributors to Agassiz' Nomenclator zoologicus (1842) and contributed to the translation by Griffith (1827–35) of Cuvier's Règne animal distribué d'après son organisation. However, Gray's greatest achievement was his three-volume work The Genera of Birds (1844–9), the subscribers for which included Queen Victoria and Prince Bonaparte, prince of Canino. The work described over 2400 genera. Thomas Bell of Selborne wrote in a letter in 1869 that ‘it was considered by all naturalists the standard work in the subject and evinced the deepest research combined with great accuracy in the arrangement’ (letter from T. Bell, July 1869, NHM). For each genus he gave a description which included physical characteristics, habits, and a list of references. Gray took immense care to find the best available illustrator and chose David William Mitchell (1813–1859), but, owing to his demanding post of secretary to the Zoological Society of London, Mitchell felt that he could not illustrate the third volume; as a result, it was illustrated by J. Wolf of Koblenz. Gray also wrote numerous accounts of the British Museum's collections, of which the Handlist of Genera and Species of Birds (3 vols., 1869–71) is probably the most widely known. He was known to resent having to put out specimens of birds for students, as he did not like to be interrupted, and by some was considered unwelcoming.

Gray was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1865, and was a fellow of the Linnean and Zoological societies. He was a member of the Imperiale e Reale Accademia Economico-Agraria dei Georgofili di Firenze. He died on 6 May 1872 at his home, 60 Adelaide Road, Haverstock Hill, London. He was survived by his wife, Anne, daughter of John Bolton Hodgson MRCS; they had no children.

Catharine M. C. Haines

Sources  

correspondence, 1833–72, NHM, Gray G. MSS, BRN 115299 · general index of printed minutes, Jan 1866–Dec 1872, BM · The Athenaeum (11 May 1872), 593 · general index of printed minutes, –Dec 1847, BM, C3612–7409 · A. E. Gunther, A century of zoology at the British Museum through the lives of two keepers, 1815–1914 (1975) · C. J. Robinson, ed., A register of the scholars admitted into Merchant Taylors’ School, from AD 1562 to 1874, 2 (1883) · Mrs E. P. Hart, ed., Merchant Taylors' School register, 1561–1934, 2 vols. (1936) · Annals of Natural History, 4th ser., 9 (1872), 480 · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1872)

Archives  

BL, corresp., Egerton MS 2348 · U. Cam., department of zoology, ornithological papers |  NL Aus., Mathews collection, ornithological papers


Likenesses  

Moore, lithograph (after B. Smith), BM

Wealth at death  

under £800: probate, 28 May 1872, CGPLA Eng. & Wales