Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)

Perhaps the most influential of Britain’s many botanical explorers, Joseph Banks was born on February 24, 1743 (died 1820).  He explored the world collecting plant specimens, and he led the early development of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens.

Banks was born to a wealthy and privileged family.  He attended the best schools, including Eton, where he learned to love plants, specifically the wildflowers that grew around the school’s grounds.  He went on to study botany at Cambridge, famously paying personally for a botany professor who could advance Banks’ knowledge.  His father died when Banks was 18, leaving him in control of several estates and a large personal fortune.  Rather than dallying in polite society, as many did, Banks applied his funds to his botanical explorations.

Bust of Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens Herbarium (photo by Larry Nielsen)

His early explorations took him to Labrador and Newfoundland, but it was his voyage with Captain Cook that earned his place in history.  He accompanied Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific, from 1768 to 1771, sailing on the Endeavour.  Banks contributed 10,000 British pounds to fund the outfitting of the ship for scientific work (equal to many millions in today’s money).  He sailed with Cook for three years, visiting South America, the South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.  He collected specimens of more than 3000 plant species, 1300 of which were new to European science.  The flora of Australia was so astonishing to Banks that he named one collecting point Botany Bay (later to become famous as the location of a prison). The specimens from the voyage formed the nucleus of the botanical collection for the British Museum (those collections were later transferred to the new London Natural History Museum).

Specimen collected by Joseph Banks on voyage with Captain Cook to South Pacific (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Banks had been made a member of the Royal Society before the voyage, but upon returning his status was highly elevated.  He was elected president in 1778, and held that position for the next 42 years until his death.  He became the scientific advisor to King George III.  A particularly important royal duty for Banks was as director of what would become the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens.  Banks dispatched voyages around the world to bring back living specimens for the gardens, thousands of species from across the world.  He was particularly interested in plants that would be useful for economic purposes—agriculture, medicine, textiles, ornamentation.  Since then, Kew has become the world’s leading botanical repository for both growing plants and for seeds preserved in cold-storage.

(Note:  There seems to be some confusion about the actual date of Banks’ birth.  It is stated as February 13 in several references, but this is apparently the “Old Style” of dating from British history.  Other references cite the birth as occurring on February 24, the date I have used.)

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sir Joseph Banks, British Naturalist.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Banks.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

Endersby, Jim.  2014.  How botanical gardens helped establish the British Empire.  Financial Times, July 25, 2014.  Available at:  https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

Gilbert, L. A.  1966.  Banks, Sir Joseph (1743-1820).  Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1 (MUP), 1966.  Available at:  http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banks-sir-joseph-1737.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

PlantExplorers.com.  Joseph Banks 1743-1820.  Available at:  https://www.plantexplorers.com/explorers/biographies/banks/joseph-banks-01.htm.  Accessed February 14, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

November 1
Ansel Adams Shoots “Moonrise” (1941)
November 2
National Bison Day
November 3
William Cullen Bryant Born (1794)
November 3
Rosalie Edge, Conservationist and Suffragette, born (1877)
November 4
UNESCO Created (1946)
November 5
Ethelwynn Trewavas Born (1900)
November 6
International Day to Protect the Environment during War
November 7
Costa Rica Constitution Enacted (1949)
November 8
World Town Planning Day
November 9
First Live Panda Leaves China (1936)
November 10
Guinness Book of World Records Born (1951)
November 11
Leonardo DiCaprio Born (1974)
November 12
Salim Ali Born (1896)
November 13
Amory Lovins Born (1947)
November 14
US Crushes Elephant Ivory (2013)
November 15
America Recycles Day
November 16
Global Climate Change Research Act Passed (1990)
November 17
David Livingstone Arrives at Victoria Falls (1855)
November 18
Asa Gray, Father of American Botany, Born (1810)
November 19
World Toilet Day
November 20
John Merle Coulter, Pioneering Botanist, Born (1851)
November 21
Lava Beds National Monument Created (1925)
November 22
Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” Premiered (1931)
November 23
National Eat-A-Cranberry Day
November 24
“On the Origin of Species” Published (1859)
November 25
Nikolai Vavilov, Pioneering Russian Agronomist, Born (1887)
November 26
Anna Maurizio, Swiss Bee Expert, Born (1900)
November 27
Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Born (1955)
November 28
Elsie Quarterman, Plant Ecologist, Born (1910)
November 29
U.S. Rations Coffee (1942)
November 30
Mark Twain, American Humorist, Born (1835)
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