In 1855 Ray went to boarding school at Leatherhead, and in 1858 to St Paul's School. His university education was at Downing College, Cambridge and Christ Church, Oxford; he transferred from Downing, after five terms, at his parents' behest because Christ's had better teaching in the form of the newly appointed George Rolleston.
Lankester achieved first-class honours in 1868. His education was rounded off by study visits to Vienna, Leipzig and Jena, and he did some work at the Marine Station at Naples. He took the examination to become a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and studied under Huxley before taking his MA.
Lankester therefore had a far better education than most English biologists of the previous generation, such as Huxley, Wallace and Bates. Even so, it could be argued that the influence of his father Edwin and his friends were just as important. Huxley was a close friend of the family, and whilst still a child Ray met Hooker, Henfry, Clifford, Gosse, Owen, Forbes, Carpenter, Lyell, Murchison, Henslow and Darwin!
He was a large man with a large presence, of warm human sympathies and in his childhood a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. His interventions, responses and advocacies were often colourful and forceful, as befitted an admirer of Huxley, for whom he worked as a demonstrator when a young man. In his personal manner he was not so adept as Huxley, and he made enemies by his rudeness. This undoubtedly damaged and limited the second half of his career.
Lankester appears, thinly disguised, in several novels. He is the model for Sir Roderick Dover in H.G. Wells' Marriage (Wells had been one of his students), and in Robert Briffault's Europa, which contains a brilliant portrait of Lankester, including his friendship with Karl Marx. He has also been suggested for Professor Challenger in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, but Doyle himself said that Challenger was based on a professor of physiology at the University of Edinburgh named William Rutherford.
Lankester never married. A finely decorated memorial plaque to him can be seen at the Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, London.
Lankester was appointed Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College London from 1874 to 1890, Linacre Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Oxford University from 1891 to 1898, and director of the Natural History Museum from 1898 to 1907. He was a founder in 1884 of the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth. Influential as teacher and writer on biological theories, comparative anatomy, and evolution, Lankester studied the protozoa, mollusca, and arthropoda. He was knighted in 1907, and was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1913.
At University College London (the 'Godless Institute of Gower Street') Lankester taught W.F.R. Weldon (1860-1906) who went on to succeed him in the chair at UCL. Another interesting student was Alfred Gibbs Bourne, who went on to hold senior positions in biology and education in the Indian Empire. When Lankester left to take up the Linacre chair at Oxford in 1891, the Grant Museum at UCL continued to grow under Weldon who added a number of extremely rare specimens. Weldon is perhaps best known for founding the science of biometry with Francis Galton (1822-1911) and Karl Pearson (1857-1936). He followed Lankester to Oxford in 1899.
After Huxley the most important influence on his thought was August Weismann, the German zoologist who rejected Lamarkism, and wholeheartedly advocated natural selection as the key force in evolution at a time when other biologists had doubts. Weismann's separation of germplasm (genetic material) from soma (somatic cells) was an idea which took many years before its significance was generally appreciated. Lankester was one of the first to see its importance: his full acceptance of selection came after reading Weismann's essays, some of which he translated into English.
Lankester was hugely influential, though perhaps more as a teacher than as a researcher. Ernst Mayr said "It was Lankester who founded a school of selectionism at Oxford". Those he influenced (in addition to Weldon) included Edwin Stephen Goodrich (Linacre chair in zoology at Oxford 1921-46) and (indirectly) Julian Huxley (the evolutionary synthesis). In turn their disciples, such as E.B. Ford (ecological genetics), Gavin de Beer (embryology and evolution), Charles Elton (ecology) and Alister Hardy (marine biology) held sway during the middle years of the 20th century.
As a zoologist Lankester was a comparative anatomist of the Huxley school, working mostly on invertebrates. He was the first to show the relationship of the horseshoe crab or Limulus to the Arachnida. His Limulus specimens can still be seen in the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL today. He was also a voluminous writer on biology for the general readership; in this he followed the example of his old mentor, Huxley.
There was trouble from the moment Lankester put forward his candidature for the office vacated by Sir William Flower, who was on the point of death. The Principal Librarian, Sir Edward Maunde Thomson, the palaeographer, was also the Secretary to the Trustees, and hence in a strong position to get his own way. There is good evidence that Thomson, an efficient and dominant figure, intended to take control of the whole Museum, including the Natural History departments. In the absence of Huxley, who had led most of the battles for over thirty years, it was left to the younger generation to battle for the independence of science, Mitchell, Poulton, and Weldon were his main supporters, and together they lobbied the Trustees, the Government and in the press to get their point over. Finally Lankester was appointed instead of Lazarus Fletcher (a relative nonentity).
Lankester was appointed in 1898, and the outcome was inevitable. Eight years of conflict with Maunde Thomson followed, with Thomson constantly interferring in the affairs of the museum and obstructing Lankester's attempt to improve the museum. Lankester resigned in 1907, at the direction of Thomson, who had discovered a clause in the regulations which allowed him to call for the resignation of officials at the age of 60. Lazarus Fletcher was appointed in his stead. There was a vast clamour in the press, and from foreign zoologists protesting at the treatment of Lankester. That Lankester had some friends in high places was shown by the Archbishop of Canterbury offering him an enhanced pension, and the kighthood that was bestowed on him the next year.
The issues raised by this affair did not end there. Eventually the NHM gained, first, its administrative freedom, then finally there was a complete separation from the BM. Today the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum all occupy separate buildings, and have complete legal, administrative and financial independence from each other.
Lankester was active in attempting to expose the frauds of Spiritualist mediums during the 1920s. He was an important writer of popular science, his weekly newspaper columns over many years being assembled and reprinted in a series of books entitled Science from an Easy Chair (first series, 1910; second series, 1912).
His writings include: