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Joseph Banks

1743 - 1820

Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820, English botanist

To Australians at least, Sir Joseph Banks is an outstanding figure in botanical history, revealing to the world the rich diversity of antipodean flora and fauna.

  • Nationality
  • English

  • Subject
  • Biology

  • Fields
  • Naturalist, botany

  • Distinctions
  • Banksia, a plant genus, is named in his honour. Around 80 plant species therefore bear his name.

    Banks is honoured by dozens of geographical placenames, and his image was on the $5 Australian banknote.

  • Posts
  • Advisor to George III on Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

    One of the founders of Royal Academy

    Foreign member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1773.

    President of the Royal Society, 1778 - 1820.

    Trustee of the British Museum, 1778 - 1820.

    Leader of the African Society.

  • Publications
  • Banks' Florilegium. A large collection of copperplate engravings, based on sketches and notes by Banks and Sydney Parkinson, who accompanied Banks on the Cook voyage 1768 - 1771. 35 volumes, c. 800 specimens, many of the species were from Australia, New Zealand and Pacific islands, and were previously unknown to science.

    Banks sponsored William Smith, in the creation of a geological map of Britain.

  • Theories
  • Through his correspondence with Carl Linnaeus, Banks became a champion of the system of the Linnaen classification system.

    Banks believed in the internationalist nature of science. Even during the Napoleonic Wars, he attempted to keep lines of communications open to continental scientists.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • Expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766, resulting in a pioneering publication on the Linnean descriptions of the flora and fauna he found there.

    Circumnavigation of the globe, including Australia and New Zealand, with Captain James Cook, 1768 - 1771, aboard the HMS Bark Endeavour.

    As the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Banks sent botanists with explorers to many parts of the world, to bring back specimens. This results in making Kew Gardens the leading gardens in the world - a position it arguably retains today.

Less well known are Banks' pioneering contributions to scientific institutions, including the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, the Royal Society, of which he was president for 41 years, and as a co-founder of the Royal Society.

Cook voyage
Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820, English botanist, accompanied James Cook on his 1768 - 1771 circumnavigation voyage, which 'discovered' Australia

Banks first gained fame with a voyage to Newfoundland, the new species he found he documented using the new Linnean system. For this, he was elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences. He documented the Great Auk, which was to become extinct by 1844.

Botany Bay
Joseph Banks landed with James Cook at Botany Bay, near Sydney, in 1770

From 1768 - 1771, Captain James Cook sailed around the world, including extensive exploration of the Antartic regions and Australasia. Banks and a team of 2 naturalists and 2 artists accompanied him. The result was a compendium of c. 800 species, many new to science, recorded painstakingly with beautiful water-colour paintings, and copperplate etchings, in Banks' Florilegium. In the end, there were 35 volumes, and plates were left to the British Museum.

Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820, English botanist
Banksia ericifolia, watercolour from Joseph Banks' Florilegium

Banks became a member of the Royal Society in 1766, and was its president for an unprecedented 41 years between 1778 till his death. He also inspired the creation of the Royal Academy, which held regular public lectures - a tradition still retained with the 'Christmas Lectures'.

Kew Gardens, London
Kew Gardens, London

Banks was very involved in the programme to settle New South Wales, which began in 1788, although he himself never returned to Australia.

In later life, he lost the use of his legs due to gout, but continued to be vigorously involved in public and scientific life. His interests extended to archeology, and he was a lifelong member of the Society of Antiquaries, and other societies.

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