Place: United Kingdom, England
Subject: biography, biology
English naturalist who, although making relatively few direct contributions to scientific knowledge himself, did much to promote science, both in the UK and internationally.
Banks was born on 13 February 1743 in London, the son of William Banks of Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. Born into a wealthy family, Banks was educated at Harrow and Eton public schools and then at Oxford University. At that time the university curriculum was biased towards the classics, but Banks was more interested in botany so he employed Israel Lyons (1739-1775), a botanist from Cambridge University, as a personal tutor in the subject. After graduating in 1763, Banks moved to London in order to meet other scientists. Meanwhile his father had died in 1761, leaving Banks a large fortune, which he inherited when he came of age in 1764. In 1776 he made his first voyage, to Labrador and Newfoundland, as naturalist on a fishery-protection ship. He collected many plant specimens during the trip and, on his return to England, was elected to the Royal Society of London.
In 1768 preparations were being made for an expedition to the southern hemisphere to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. Banks obtained the position of naturalist on the voyage and accompanied by several artists and an assistant botanist, Daniel Solander (1736-1782), set sail in the Endeavour - commanded by Captain James Cook - in 1768; Banks paid for his assistants and all the equipment he needed out of his own pocket, at a cost of about £10,000. After the astronomical observations had been completed (the transit was observed from Tahiti), the expedition proceeded on its second objective, to search for the large southern continent that was then thought to exist. During this part of the voyage the expedition explored the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. Banks' plant-collecting activities at the first landing place in Australia (near present-day Sydney) gave rise to the name of the area - Botany Bay. He also studied the Australian fauna, discovering that almost all of the mammals are Marsupials. The expedition returned to England in 1771 and Banks brought back a vast number of plant specimens, more than 800 of which were previously unknown. (Banks kept a journal of the expedition, part of which was published, although not until long after his death, but he did not write an account of his scientific findings on the voyage.) On his return, Banks found himself a celebrity and was summoned to Windsor Castle to give a personal account of his travels to King George III; this visit was the start of a lifelong friendship with the king, which helped Banks to establish many influential contacts.
In 1772 Banks went on his last expedition, to Iceland, where he studied geysers. In 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society (perhaps because of his influence in high places), an office he held until his death 42 years later. As president, Banks re-established good relations between the Royal Society and the king, who had previously quarrelled with the society over the issue of the best shape for the ends of lightning conductors. He also brought several wealthy patrons into the society and helped to develop its international reputation.
As a result of the friendship between Banks and the king, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew - of which Banks was the honorary director - became a focus of botanical research. Banks sent plant collectors to many countries in an attempt to establish at Kew as many different species as possible. He also conceived of Kew as a major centre for the practical use of plants, to which end he initiated several important projects, including the introduction of the tea plant into India from its native China, and the transport of the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies. This latter project, however, was initially unsuccessful because of the famous mutiny on the Bounty, which was carrying the breadfruit trees. At the king's request, Banks also played an active part in importing merino sheep into the UK from Spain; after initial difficulties, the breed was later successfully introduced into Australia.
Banks' voyage to Australia on the Endeavour stimulated a lifelong interest in the country's affairs, and he was instrumental in establishing the first colony at Botany Bay in 1788. Thereafter he greatly assisted the growth of the colony and was in regular correspondence with its various governors.
Banks was a generous patron who gave financial assistance to several talented young scientists, notably Robert Brown, who later became an eminent botanist although he is better known today as the discoverer of Brownian motion. Banks also made his large home in Soho Square, London, a renowned meeting place for scientists and prominent figures from other fields. In addition, his international prestige did much to promote the exchange of ideas among scientists in many countries. He also obtained safe passages for many scientists during the American War of Independence and during the Napoleonic wars, and petitioned on behalf of scientists who had been captured.
Banks received many honours during his life, including a baronetcy in 1781 and membership of the Privy Council in 1797. When he died on 19 June 1820, in Isleworth, near London, he left an extensive natural history library and a collection of plants regarded as one of the most important in existence, both of which are now housed in the British Museum.
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