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A Giant in Botany: Sir Joseph Banks

Updated on July 20, 2020
Royal Botanical Gardens
Royal Botanical Gardens
Sir Joseph Banks
Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks was known as a giant in Botany and one of England's greatest in the 18th century.

He was born 24 February 1743, son of William Banks, a wealthy Lincolnshire squire, and wife, Sarah. Both Joseph's father and grandfather were members of parliament. In 1756 Joseph attended Eaton College and then went on to Oxford College. By this time, he was determined to learn everything he could regarding botany. He enlisted botanist Israel Lyons, paying him to deliver lectures at Oxford in 1764.

By 1766, Banks was on an expedition aboard the HMS Niger bound for Newfoundland and Labrador on the northeast shores of Canada. It was on this trip that Banks discovered the Great Auk, Not long after the Great Auk would be extinct because of the demand for their soft feathers.

Banks and his friend John Phipps discovered many new plants and birds unseen before. Among them the Dwarf Honeysuckle that is so popular in gardens today. After returning to England, Banks, and friend Daniel Solander, another naturalist, began recording and cataloging their specimens and heard about the upcoming expedition of Captain James Cook to explore unknown places.

After his father died, Banks inherited considerable wealth. He decided to use his wealth for science and botany and throughout his life, he financed expeditions to make new discoveries in unknown places.

Banks financed his own passage along with scientists, illustrators, and servants of his own.

Great Auk
Great Auk
Dwarf Honeysuckle
Dwarf Honeysuckle

Cpt Cook and Banks on the Endeavor to Tahiti and Australia

Along with Sir Banks were his friend and naturalist Daniel Solander, Finnish naturalist Herman Sporing, artists, Sydney Parkinson, and Alexander Buchan plus four of his servants.

Exploring Australia Banks and his scientists discovered over 800 species and illustrated by the artists. This is where the very first kangaroo was seen and noted on 7/12/1770 in the Banks journal. The name Botany Bay was so given from Cook because of the hundreds of specimens Banks and Solander collected.

In 1771 the Endeavor returned to England, where Banks was an instant celebrity. Again the cataloguing and descriptions of all the specimens began. Banks is credited with the discovery of eucalyptus, acacia, and Banksia.

Sir Joseph had always had an active role in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and an unofficial friend of King George III and advisor about the qualities of Australia, even suggesting a penal colony should be built there.

Solander and Banks
Solander and Banks
Australian Kangaroo
Australian Kangaroo

In His Honor

Several landmarks are named in Sir Joseph Banks' honor. Among them are:

Banks Peninsular, New Zealand

Banks Strait, Northwest Territory, Canada

Sir Joseph Banks, Isles, South Australia

Cape Banks, Botany Bay

The Sir Joseph Banks Centre is located on Bridge Street, Lincolnshire boasting of research facilities, historical links to Australia, and a magnificent garden complete with rare plants to be viewed or purchased. In 2011, the Chelsa Flower Show had an exhibit showing Banks' discoveries from S. America, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. Banks was elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Science.

Banks financed several voyages such as George Vancouver's expedition to the Pacific Northwest and voyages by William Bligh. Banks spent his life searching for new specimens for preservation.

He suffered years from gout, forcing him to use a wheelchair. In his will, he required no monument or fanfare, and that his papers be deposited in the British Museum. Air Banks served as president of the Royal Society for over 40 years. In 1781, Sir Banks was created a baronet.

The McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has the manuscript of his Newfoundland discoveries.

It would be years before his book FLORILEGIUM would be published. Finally, between the years 1980-1990, 34 volumes were published.


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