Banks, Joseph

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Banks, Joseph

(b. London, England, 13 February 1743; d. Isleworth, England, 19 June 1820)


Joseph Banks was the only son of William Banks of Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire, and his wife Sarah, the eldest daughter of William Bate of Derbyshire. The Banks family first became well known in the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century was firmly established among the landed gentry. Joseph’s great-grandfather, a prosperous attorney of the same name, was a man who acquired property and rendered public service as a member of Parliament, first for Grimsby and later for Totnes. In the next generation another Joseph was sheriff of the county and a member of the Royal Society of London. His second son, Joseph’s father, continued the tradition of public service and took particular interest in the drainage of the Fenland. Thus the inheritance of the family was a happy if not unusual one. In the early eighteenth century the Banks family elevated its social position by marrying into the Grenville family and the family of the earl of Exeter.

The early years of Banks’s life were spent at Revesby Abbey. In 1752 he entered Harrow, transferring in 1756 to Eton. Henry Brougham, in a biographical sketch published after Banks’s death, commented that the young Joseph was not particularly “bookish,” and his school record bears this out. At the age of fifteen, while still at Eton, Banks became aware of his interests and found a goal for his life, the study of botany. One summer evening, after swimming with schoolmates, he remained behind his companions and returned to school alone. While he was wandering along a country lane, the beauty of the flowers and the solitude overwhelmed him. He told a friend, Sir Everard Home, of the experience, and Home repeated the story in his Hunterian Oration of 1822:

He stopped and looking round, involuntarily exclaimed, How beautiful! After some reflection, he said to himself, it is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all these productions of Nature, in preference to Greek and Latin; but the latter is my father’s command and it is my duty to obey him: I will however make myself acquainted with all these different plants for my own pleasure and gratification. He began immediately to teach himself Botany; and, for want of more able tutors, submitted to be instructed by the women, employed in culling simples, as it is termed, to supply The Druggists and Apothecaries shops, paying sixpence for every material piece of information.

When he next went home on holiday, Banks found a battered copy of John Gerarde’s The Herball or Historie of Plants (1598); the woodcuts illustrating the text were of the very same plants he had been collecting at school. He proceeded to broaden his interest in natural history, turning to the study of insects, shells, and fossils as well as plants.

In 1760 Banks entered as a gentleman commoner at Christ Church, Oxford. The classical curriculum was far from his taste, but he was able to begin his formal training in botany. This was due to his own initiative, however, rather than to the challenge of the curriculum. The professor of botany at Oxford, Humphrey Sibthorp, never gave lectures. At Sibthrop’s suggestion, Banks turned to the professor of botany at Cambridge, who found him an instructor, Israel Lyons. Lyons came to Oxford and gave instruction to Banks and other interested students. Lyons was supported by Banks with income from his estate, the estate that was to be the source of support for many scientific projects during Banks’s long life. As Linnaeus somewhat chauvinistically remarked later: “I cannot sufficiently admire Mr. Banks who has exposed himself to so many dangers and has bestowed more money in the service of Natural Science than any other man. Surely none but an Englishman would have the spirit to do what he has done.”

Banks’s father had died in 1761, and in 1764, at his majority, Joseph came into his well-managed inheritance. During his lifetime he was spoken of as a man of large fortune, and estimates of his yearly income varied from £6,000 to £30,000. It was not his wealth that made him a prominent man; rather, it was his vision and interests that could be furthered by his income. A modest man when it came to his scientific prowess, he spoke of himself as a botanizer rather than as a botanist. His chief reputation was not based on his scientific ability as much as it was on his ability to organize and administer scientific affairs. He became a patron of science. Owing to his background, connections, interests, and pleasant personality, he became a person of importance and influence early in life.

Finding the atmosphere of Oxford not conducive to his interests, Banks left the university without a degree and settled in London. In 1766 he made the first of several voyages. These trips appealed to him because of the opportunity they presented to collect new botanical specimens. His first voyage, lasting from April to November 1766, took him to Labrador and Newfoundland. He indulged his interests to the full, bringing back specimens that marked the beginning of the famous Banks Herbarium. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

In 1768 the governments of Europe, in cooperation with scientific academies, were planning a series of observations of the transit of Venus in 1769. The English government was to send an expedition to the South Seas; the Admiralty and the Royal Society planned the expedition. Banks asked for and gained permission to join the voyage as a naturalist. He became a participant in the famous first voyage of Captain James Cook on the Endeavour. Besides observing the transit of Venus, the expedition was to conduct explorations in the South Seas for the southern continent that was thought to exist. Although the two aims of the voyage, geography and astronomy, were far from Banks’s interests, he easily accommodated himself to the ship and its company. His preparations were extensive. He was accompanied by his own party of eight men with their equipment, all paid for from his own pocket. One of his companions was a Swede, Daniel Carl Solander.

One of Linnaeus’ outstanding pupils, Solander had come to England in 1760 at the request of Peter Collinson and John Ellis, English naturalists who corresponded with Linnaeus. He became well known in England and spread his master’s teachings in the British Isles. As early as 1762 he was invited to attend meetings of the Royal Society. In the same year the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences offered him a professorship in botany. Solander did not wish to leave England, for he found it much to his liking, both professionally and personally. By 1764 he was made an assistant at the British Museum and in the same year was elected a member of the Royal Society. Banks’s other companions, aside from personal servants, were Armon Sporing, a naturalist; Sydney Parkinson, a skilled artist; and A. Buchan, another artist, who died early in the voyage.

The preparations for the expedition by Banks and Solander were extensive. With these preparations there developed a close personal and professional relationship between the two men that ended only with the death of Solander in 1782. A letter from James Ellis to Linnaeus, written on the eve of the voyage, reveals the careful planning:

No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History. They have got a fine library of Natural History; they have all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing, they have even a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom at a great depth, where it is clear. They have many cases of bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits. They have the several sorts of salts to surround the seeds; and wax, both beeswax and that of Myrica; besides there are many people whose sole business it is to attend them for this very purpose. They have two painters and draughtsmen, several volunteers who have a tolerable notion of Natural History; in short Solander assured me this expedition would cost Mr. Banks £10,000. All this is owing to you and your writings.

Banks was also well informed about the problem of scurvy on long voyages. Cook provided quantities of sauerkraut for the crew. Banks preferred to use lemon juice, which he brought along on the voyage. Both of these remedies worked well in keeping the crew free of the disease.

Fortunately, Banks was a man of easy disposition, and from the beginning he and Cook were friendly. Cook was the navigator, Banks the botanizer. After the astronomical aspects of the voyage were accomplished, the expedition turned to exploring for the southern continent. Although the hope of discovery was not realized, Cook did conduct explorations in New Zealand and Australia. The gathering of specimens was of marked importance for descriptive botany and zoology. During the voyage over 800 previously unknown specimens were collected. Banks took great interest in the native languages and customs, and was the only person on the trip who gained any mastery of Tahitian, although he had little facility in foreign languages. The voyage acted as an intellectual stimulus to Banks, then in the full vigor of youth., Most of all, this expedition, one of the first to carry a professional naturalist, made a reputation for Banks that would greatly aid him in his later career. On their return in 1771, both Banks and Cook were acclaimed as heroes.

Banks kept an extensive journal of this three-year period. The publication of the journal was delayed for over a century, however, and not until 1962 was an accurate and well-edited version published. Banks was not himself a man of letters, and seems to have felt hesitation in putting his journal into a publishable form. He had hoped to publish the journals with handsome illustrations, but the death of his associate and librarian Solander in 1782 delayed publication for the moment. This delay continued until his death. His herbarium and library were willed to his last librarian and custodian, Robert Brown, a noted botanist in his own right. In his will banks provided that the bequest would go to the British Museum at Brown’s death, unless Brown chose to deposit the collection at the museum during his lifetime. Brown elected the latter course and became keeper of the botanical department of the British Museum in 1827, his chief job being the supervision of the collections left by Banks. Because his journal and private papers were ignored by his heirs for some time after his death, Banks was not very well known in the fields of his greatest competence and interest until several generations after his death. Instead, his name and reputation were associated with the Royal Society of London, Banks dominated the scientific community of England and presided over its affairs for many years in the same way that Samuel Johnson presided over the literary community. In 1772 Banks made a brief visit to Iceland, the last of his voyages.

Banks has been best remembered for his long tenure of office as president of the Royal Society. Elected at the age of thirty-five in 1778, he continued in that office until his death in 1820. At the time of his election nonscientists made up the majority of the society membership, a situation that had existed since its founding. Although boasting of the sovereign as its patron, the society lacked any regular income from royal or parliamentary grants. Often membership was given to men of influence who might bring benefaction, if not scientific knowledge, to the society. During Banks’s long tenure the proportion of scientific to nonscientific members did not increase significantly. Early in his presidency he was criticized for packing the council of the society with his favorites. for being dictatorial in selection of new members, and for not possessing an appropriate mathematical bent. Only the last was true. Although somewhat high-handed in introducing nominations for membership and appointments to the council, this was not necessarily favoritism on his part, but may have represented an attempt to strengthen the membership rolls of the society. Yet Banks was not an innovator and made no attempt to redress the lack of balance between professional scientists and amateurs in the society, In this respect he maintained the status quo.

Banks considered the presidency of the Royal Society the greatest honor bestowed upon him in his lifetime and was faithful in attending to the duties of his office. During his forty-one years of service there were 450 meetings of the council, and he presided over 417 of them, although later in life he was crippled with gout and could move only with difficulty. He made the society much better known both at home and abroad. After 1777 his house in Soho Square became an unofficial headquarters for scientists in London. His weekly receptions, his famous breakfast parties for noted guests, and his large library, available to students, all contributed to the enhancement of the reputation of the society. And Banks did not hesitate to use the prestige of his office to further causes connected with science. He was one of the founders of the Linnean Society, assisted in the founding of the Royal Institution, and took an active interest in the affairs of the Board of Longitude.

Banks was made a baronet in 1781, a knight of the Order of the Bath in 1795, and a member of the Privy Council in 1797. Oxford University had already awarded him an honorary degree on his return from his voyage to the South Seas. One of the great pleasures of his life came in 1771, when he was introduced to King George III. The two men immediately struck up a friendship that grew with their common interest in horticulture and agriculture. It was Banks who persuaded the king to turn Kew Gardens, already noted for their beauty, into a botanical research center. Banks became the king’s chief adviser in connection with Kew, and plants from all over the world were brought there for study and cultivation. Sir Joseph had the foresight to recognize that various plants could be adapted for cultivation in the broad reaches of the British Empire. He suggested the growing of Chinese tea in India, and his desire to cultivate the breadfruit tree in the West Indies led to the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty. A later expedition succeeded in bringing plants to the West Indies, but unfortunately the tree did not adapt itself very successfully to its new environment.

Kew Gardens became a bond between Banks and George III. The king was interested, as were others. in the possibility of bringing merino sheep from Spain in order to improve the quality of English wool. However, the sheep, long valued for the fine quality of their wool, were carefully protected and Spanish law forbade their sale to foreigners. Earlier in the century a few of the sheep had been obtained in France and Silesia. banks managed the delicate transaction of obtaining sheep for England; in later years, during the Peninsular War, merino sheep became more available.

The friendship of the king for Banks undoubtedly assisted his election to the presidency of the Royal Society. The king had been severely displeased with Sir John Pringle, Banks’s predecessor. In 1775 a committee of the society, among whom was Benjamin Franklin, had conducted, at the request of the government, a series of experiments to determine the most effective type of lightning rod. In its report the committee had advocated the use of lightning rods with pointed conductors, as opposed to blunt or knobbed conductors. The knobbed conductors had their advocates, however, and as a result, a spirited argument arose. With the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776, Franklin’s name became associated with rebellion as well as with pointed conductors, and a scientific question thus became a political question as well. Pringle backed Franklin, and on being urged by the king to change his opinion, is supposed to have said; “Sire, I cannot reverse the laws and operations of nature,” Pringle’s decision to retire in 1778 made it possible for the society to elect as president a person who, in addition to other qualifications, was a friend of the king.

Banks’s interest in the South Seas did not lag after his return from the Endeavour voyage. Throughout the remainder of his life he continued to be concerned about the prospects of obtaining botanical specimens from these areas. And both Banks and Cook had been impressed with the east coast of Australia, which in both climate and soil was appealing as a prospective site for European colonization. As early as 1779 Banks appeared before a committee of the House of Commons to urge the use of Botany Bay as a place to send English convicts who had long terms to serve. The defection of the American colonies, which in the past had received some of these convicts, made a new destination urgent. Not until 1783 did the government begin to make plans for a convict settlement in New South Wales. In 1786, when the formal plans were made, Banks was consulted, and most probably was the author of a document entitled “Heads of the Plan,” which described the proposed voyage and the aims for the settlement. The plan pointed out that New Zealand flax would undoubtedly thrive in Australia and would give an additional and superior supply of material for making canvas for both the navy and the merchant marine.

From the beginning of the colony in 1788 there was a constant problem for the military governors in dealing with the convicts, problems of supply, and the general lack of interest of the government at London—due in large part to the French Revolution. Throughout the extended period of war following the Revolution, the various governors sent not only official dispatches and pleas to London but also private letters to banks outlining their problems and asking for help and advice. He did much to aid the struggling colony. At first Banks did not encourage the raising of sheep in the new land because the coastal area that Banks had explored had not seemed good for pasturage. An early governor had also reported that a flock of seventy sheep had died shortly after their arrival from the Cape Colony. As sheep raising became successful, Banks slowly changed his mind.

One of the most outstanding contributions that Banks made to the scientific world was his interest in maintaining close contacts in the international scientific community. He had been impressed with Franklin’s protection of Captain Cook during the American revolution; Franklin had made it possible for Cook to sail unmolested by ships of the new republic. The outbreak of war with France in 1793 provided a great challenge to the free exchange of ideas between French and English scientists. Throughout the long war Banks was a constant advocate of maintaining contact with French scientists. He also spent much time in attempting to maintain a free exchange of scientific publications at a time when communications with the enemy were strictly forbidden.

Scientists frequently became prisoners of war, and when appeals were made to Banks, his efforts to gain their release were often successful. Enemy ships, captured on their return from scientific expeditions, often carried valuable botanical specimens, and Banks would arrange for the release and return of this valuable scientific cargo to French ports. The French geologist Dolomieu, returning from the Egyptian expedition of Napoleon, was imprisoned by the king of Naples. When Banks found that it was impossible to obtain his release, he used all of the influence at his command to make Dolomieu’s confinement easier. His correspondence with Frenchmen in this period is impressive. Such names as Lalande, Du Pont de Nemours, Delambre, and Cuvier appear; they wrote to Banks concerning such diverse matters as the release of a hostage, a copy of the Nautical Almanac, and letters of safe passage for scientific workers. In 1802 Banks was elected to membership in the Institute, an honor he accepted with pride.

Until his death Banks maintained his interest in science and his encouragement of scientific pursuits. His own scientific writings are few and of no importance; and he would have been the first to admit that such was the case. His great collection of specimens and his library are now in the British Museum. Long remembered by many as an autocrat in his rule of the Royal Society and often associated with the patronizing characterization of him by Sir Humphry Davy, Banks is assessed much more fairly in Cuvier’s éloge of 1821;

The works which this man leaves behind him occupy a few pages only; their importance is not greatly superior to their extent; and yet his name will shine out with lustre in the history of the sciences. In his youth, resigning the pleasures which an independent fortune had placed at his command, he devoted himself to Science and in her cause braved the dangers of the sea and the rigors of the most opposite climates. During a long series of years, he has done good service to the cause of Science by exciting in its favour all the influences arising from his fortunate position and friendship with men in power; but his special claim to our homage rests on the fact that he always considered the labourers in the field of science as having a rightful claim on his interest and protection.


Little recognition was given to Banks by writers until many years after his death. A convenient listing of early memorials and reminiscences of Banks, along with the titles of Bank’s scientific treatises, can be found in B.D. jack son “Sir joseph Banks,” in Dictionary of National Biography. The first biography, a typical life-and-letters biography of the Edwardian period, is Edward Smith, The life of Sir joseph banks (London 1911) George Mackaness, Sir Joseph Banks, His Relations With Australia (Sydney, 1936), is of some help, although the title is some-what misleading. The best biography is Hector Charles Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, K.B., P.R.S., The Autocrat of the Philosophers (London, 1952). Halldor Hermannsson, “Sir Joseph Banks and Iceland,” in Islandica18 (1928), gives a good account of the voyage to Iceland and Bank’s continued interest in the Island.

Warren R. Dawson, The Banks Letters; A Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks (London, 1958), is an invaluable guide to Banks’s extensive correspondence. Sir Gavin de Beer, The Sciences Were Never at War (London, 1960), supplies interesting correspondence of Banks in connection with his attempts to maintain communication with France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. A good, brief account of Banks’s presidency of the Royal Society can be found in Henry Lyons, The Royal society, 1660–1940 (Cambridge, 1944). The work of J.c. Beaglehole in the study of Banks’s career is most important. His editing of The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771, 2 vols. (Sydney, 1962), is not only a model of editing but also supplies, in the authoritative introduction to the journals, by far the best account of Banks’s life in this formative period.

George A. Foote