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Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820)

by Philip F. Rehbock

Joseph Banks (1743–1820), botanist and administrator-entrepreneur-patron of the sciences, grew up at his family’s extensive estate in Lincolnshire. Educated at Harrow, Eton and Oxford, he did not take a degree, preferring private tutoring in botany to the traditional education in the classics. While botany was the focus of his most intense scientific activities, Banks was neither an important botanical theorist nor a prominent taxonomist. Rather, botany was his stimulus for the larger scientific enterprises that marked his career; and his generous spirit and considerable private wealth as a member of the landed gentry made these enterprises not only possible but often sumptuous.

Banks established his position in the world of science initially as a voyager. His first expedition (1766) was to Labrador and Newfoundland, an experience that secured him both a fellowship in the Royal Society and the beginnings of his famous herbarium. Two years later he assembled and funded the scientific party that accompanied Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, aboard HMS Endeavour. With the assistance of the Linnaeus-trained botanist Daniel Solander, the artist Sydney Parkinson and others, Banks accumulated 30,000 specimens, including possibly 1400 new species, plus thousands of illustrations, during this three-year voyage to Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand. His ethnographic interests were sharpened by numerous encounters with Pacific islanders.

The Endeavour voyage established Banks’ reputation as a naturalist and ensured the support of those in high places, including King George III, through whom Banks worked to convert Kew Gardens into a botanical research institution. The voyage also supplied the initial stimulus for many of his non-scientific enterprises. His exploration of Botany Bay convinced him that Australia would be suitable for British colonization, especially by long-term convicts, and the plan he promoted for colonization was put into effect in 1788. He also took a keen interest in establishing economically important plants and animals outside their native range.

Banks’ final voyage was to Iceland briefly in 1772. Thereafter his attention was focused principally on the London scientific community. As president of the Royal Society for an unprecedented 41 years, Banks earned his greatest fame, serving in office from 1778, aged only 35, until his death at 77. He patronized aspiring scientists and explorers, and his house in Soho Square became a mecca for informal scientific gatherings. Neither the productivity of London science nor the percentage of scientists among Fellows of the Royal Society improved substantially in his time, but he fostered a close international network of scientists, ensuring the exchange of scientific publications, especially during the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Banks was made a baronet in 1781 and knighted in 1795. Upon his death the remarkable Banksian collections passed first to his librarian, Robert Brown, botanist and veteran of Matthew Flinders’ voyage, and thence to the British Museum where they became a foundation of the natural history collections.

Original Publication

  • The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brij V. Lal and Kate Fortune, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000, pp 161-62

Select Bibliography

  • H. B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks, 1743–1820, British Museum, 1988
  • J. Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1994

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip F. Rehbock, 'Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820)', Pacific Islander Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://pib.anu.edu.au/biography/banks-sir-joseph-1737/text27225, accessed 23 October 2017.

© Copyright Pacific Islander Biography, 2012