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Joseph Banks (1743-1820)

Joseph Banks was a renowned English botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his legendary voyage to the South Pacific (1768-71). Throughout his travels Banks discovered well over a thousand unrecorded plant species, bringing them to the attention of the Western world and confirming his place as one of the greatest botanists of his generation. The plant genus Banksia was named in his honour, a testament of his significant contribution in this field.

Joseph Banks, as painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773

Joseph Banks, as painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773

Born in London in 1743, Joseph Banks studied at Harrow and Eton before pursuing his interest in natural history at Oxford University. Having inherited a considerable fortune following the death of his father in 1761, Banks may well have pursued the route most expected for the son of a wealthy Lincolnshire country squire. But his continued fascination with botany was to carry him in an altogether different direction and in 1768 he found himself aboard the HM Bark Endeavour, about to embark upon arguably the greatest science expedition of the age.

The main purpose of the expedition was to record the transit of Venus across the sun, an ambition which was successfully achieved. The second aim was to record as many plants and animals as possible, an undertaking Banks was born for. Travelling to South America, Tahiti, New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, Banks and fellow botanist Daniel Solander documented countless plants whilst the botanical artist Sydney Parkinson drew them. From Australia the men collected more specimens than anywhere else on their journey, and it was here that Captain Cook was inspired to christen one particular area “Botany Bay.” In recognition of the two botanists on board, Cook also named one area “Point Solander,” and another “Cape Bank.” But the voyage was not without its problems and a number of the crew, including Sydney Parkinson, perished due to illness. When the explorers returned home tales and evidence of their adventures made them famous, although it was the last journey Banks would make with Captain Cook.

Banks` knowledge and influence was by no means confined to botany. He played a significant role in government affairs, in particular British colonization in Australia, and was consulted on a variety of different issues when it came to this country. In 1778 he was elected as President of the Royal Society, a post he held for 41 years, and in 1781 was made a baronet. Banks was also a leading figure in numerous societies including the Linnean Society, the Royal Institution and the Horticultural Society. Unbelievably he was also a trustee of the British Museum and his close involvement with Kew Gardens saw them develop into arguably the finest botanical gardens in the world.

Following his death in 1820 Banks was buried at St Leonard`s Church, Heston.

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