Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria
Naturalist and patron of science
Joseph Banks was born in 1743, the only son of a wealthy land-owning family. From an early age, his declared passion was natural history, and in particular, botany. Shortly after inheriting his family's fortune in the early 1760's he chose to pursue this passion to the full. In 1766 he travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador to collect plants, animals and rocks and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year.
When the Royal Society was successful in initiating Captain Cook's 1768 expedition to Tahiti for astronomical observations, Banks obtained permission from the Admiralty to join the venture. For him, this was like a present-day scientist being given the chance of a trip to another planet, a chance to study new plants in unknown lands.
They made collections and observations in South America, Tahiti and New Zealand before reaching Australia. His major landfalls on the eastern coast of Australia were at Botany Bay (28 April - 5 May 1770) and at the Endeavour River (17 June - 3 August). By now the
'collection of plants was . . . grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil . . .'
The plant material collected and sorted on the voyage was extensive, with the herbarium specimens accounting for about 110 new genera and 1300 new species.
After his triumphant return from this voyage, Banks travelled to Scotland, Wales, Holland and Iceland, collecting more and more 'curiosities'. Among a host of other activities, including the running of his estates, he controlled the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and was a Trustee of the British Museum. In 1778 he also became President of the Royal Society, an office which he held until his death in 1820. He was knighted in 1781.
Although Linneaus' suggestion of naming the new country 'Banksia' was not adopted, Bank's name was bestowed upon a genus of Australian plants and he made his mark upon Australian history in other ways. When the British government was casting about for a suitable place to establish a penal colony, Banks was an advocate for Botany Bay. After the settlement was established at Sydney Cove, he encouraged further investigation of the natural history of the area and became the acknowledged authority on matters relating to New South Wales. His impact on the study of natural history in both Britain and Australia cannot be overestimated.
Some of Banks' papers are digitized on the web site of the National Library of Australia.
Portrait: Thomas Phillips (1770–1845), painted 1810. Original held at the National Portrait Gallery London (NPG 885).