Joseph Ray was born on November 25, 1807, in Ohio County, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia). He attended local schools and quickly proved himself to be an adept student. By the time he was sixteen, he had begun a career as a teacher. In 1825, Ray enrolled in Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio. While a student at Franklin College, Ray studied medicine under Joel Martin. Upon graduating from college in 1828, Ray enrolled in the Medical College of Ohio, located in Cincinnati. Ray received free tuition but had to pay for his own living expenses. During the winter he attended college, and during the summers, he taught school. He graduated in 1831.
Upon earning his medical degree, Ray took a position as teacher with Woodward High School in Cincinnati. He taught struggling students arithmetic and bookkeeping, while other instructors taught stronger students college preparatory courses. In 1836, the Ohio legislature authorized Woodward High School to become Woodward College of Cincinnati. Ray became a professor at the institution. The college survived until 1851, when it became a public high school. Ray served as the principal of the school until his death in 1855.
Ray is most famous for authoring mathematical textbooks. In 1834, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, published An Introduction to Ray's Eclectic Arithmetic. Ray eventually authored several other textbooks. By the end of the nineteenth century, Ray's texts had become the most widely used math books in the United States, with sales approaching 120 million copies. For a time, they were the most used textbooks across all disciplines. William McGuffey, a colleague of Ray's at Woodward College, eventually produced a series of English readers that outsold his friend's books.
Ray emphasized critical thinking in his classroom. He believed that his students needed to learn how to apply what they learned to real-life situations. Rather than giving his pupils simple problems to solve, he preferred word problems. He also emphasized morality in his teaching as well. He did not stand for improper behavior in his classroom. The word problems that Ray included in his textbooks only contained moral and God-fearing men and women.
Ray also played an early role in making Ohio's teachers more professional and better trained. In 1832, he helped establish the Western Literacy Institute and College of Professional Teachers. This organization's goals included providing teachers with the latest teaching techniques. Ray served briefly as the director of the Ohio chapter and produced numerous reports, including ones on teaching strategies for math and English teachers. He also authored a report on the proper use of blackboards in the classroom. Ray was a member of the Ohio State Teachers Association and served as that organization's president in 1853. In 1854, he became an associate editor for The Ohio Journal of Education. He died on April 11, 1855, from tuberculosis.