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Who said: “Nature does nothing in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”
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Sir Joseph Banks
(13 Feb 1743 - 19 Jun 1820)

English botanist and explorer, who cataloged new species of plants and animals when he accompanied Capt. James Cook on his voyages to Australia and Tahiti. Banks was president of the Royal Society for over 40 years.


Sir Joseph Banks - Biography

From: Dictionary of National Biography (1885)

[p. 129] BANKS, Sir JOSEPH (1743-1820), president of the Royal Society, born at Argyle Street, London, on 13 Feb. 1743-4, was the only son of William Banks of Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire, and Sarah, daughter of William Bate. He received his early education under a private tutor, and at the age of nine was sent to Harrow School, and thence transferred to Eton when thirteen. He was described as being well disposed and good-tempered, but so immoderately fond of play that his attention could not be fixed to his studies. At fourteen his tutor had the satisfaction of seeing a change come over his pupil, which Banks afterwards explained as follows. One fine summer evening he had stayed bathing in the Thames so long, that he found that all his companions had gone. Walking back leisurely along a lane, the sides of which were clothed with flowers, he was so struck by their beauty as to resolve to add botany to the classical studies imposed by authority. He submitted to be instructed by the women employed in culling simples to supply the druggists' shops, paying sixpence for each material item of information. During his next holidays, to his extreme delight he found a book in his mother's dressing-room, which not only described the plants he had met, but also gave engravings of them. This proved to be Gerard's ‘Herball,’and although one of its covers was gone and several of its leaves were lost, he carried it back to school in triumph, and was soon able to turn the tables upon his former instructors.

He left Eton in his eighteenth year, but lost the last half-year of his education there. He had been taken home to be inoculated for small-pox, but the first attempt failed, and when he had fully recovered from the second it was thought fit to send him to Oxford. He was accordingly entered a gentleman commoner at Christ Church in December 1760.

His liking for botany increased while at the university, and he warmly embraced the other branches of natural history. Finding that no lectures were given in botany, he sought and obtained from the professor permission to procure a teacher to be paid by the students. He then went by stagecoach to Cambridge, and brought back with him Mr. Israel Lyons, astronomer and botanist, who afterwards published a small book on the Cambridge flora. Many years subsequently Lyons, through the interest of Banks, was appointed astronomer under Captain Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, on his voyage towards the North Pole.

Banks's father died in 1761 during his first year at Oxford, leaving him an ample fortune and estate at Revesby. He left Oxford in December 1763, after taking an honorary degree. In February 1764 he came of age and took possession of his paternal fortune. He had already attracted attention in the university by his superior attainments in natural history; and in May 1766 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society. During the same summer he went to Newfoundland to collect plants with his friend Lieutenant Phipps. He returned to England during the following winter by way of Lisbon. After his return an intimacy was established between Dr. Daniel Solander and himself, which was only ended by the death of the former. Solander had been a favourite pupil of Linnseus, and at the time when Banks first came to know him was employed as an assistant librarian at the British Museum. He afterwards became Banks's companion round the world, and subsequently his librarian until his death.

Sir Joseph Banks (red coat) with naturalist explorers
(L to R) Dr. Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks (in red coat), Captain Cook,
Dr. John Hawkesworth and Earl Sandwich. Painting (1771) by John Hamilton Mortimer. (source)

By his influence with Lord Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, Banks obtained permission to accompany Cook's expedition in the Endeavour, equipped at his own expense, taking with him Dr. Solander, two draughtsmen—Mr. Buchan for landscape, and Mr. Sydney Parkinson for objects of natural history—and two attendants. The journal which he kept was largely utilised by Dr. Hawkesworth in his relation of the voyages of Carteret, Wallis, and Cook. Thence we learn that the Endeavour left Plymouth on a fair wind on the afternoon of 25 Aug. 1768. [p.130] Crossing the Bay of Biscay, Banks captured many of the surface animals and marine birds, and three weeks after quitting England Madeira was sighted. The harbour of Rio de Janeiro was reached on 13 Nov. The jealousy of the Portuguese officials prevented much collecting being done, except by stealth, and after many altercations with the governor Cook set sail after three weeks' stay in that port. They reached Le Maire's Strait in January 1769, and Banks with his assistants gathered winter's-bark in abundance. Here Banks, Solander, Green the astronomer, and Monkhouse the surgeon started for a day's trip into the interior. Ascending a hill they came upon a swamp, where a fall of snow greatly incommoded and chilled them. Buchan, the artist, was seized with a fit, and, a fire being lit, the least tired completed the ascent to the summit and came down without much delay to the rendezvous. It was now eight o'clock, and they pushed forwards to the ship, Banks bringing up the rear to prevent straggling. Dr. Solander begged every one to keep moving. The cold suddenly became intense. Solander himself was the first who lay down forms to rest, and at last fell asleep in spite of all. Banks's efforts. A few minutes afterwards some of the people who had been sent forward returned with the welcome news that a fire was burning a quarter of a mile in advance. Solander was aroused with the utmost difficulty, having almost lost the use of his limbs, and a black servant had nearly perished. The fire having been reached, Banks sent back two of those who seemed least affected by the cold to bring back the couple who were left with the negro. It was then found that a bottle of rum was in the knapsack of one of the men; the negro was roused by the spirit, but he and his companions drank too freely of it, and all but one of them succumbed to the frost. Others of the party showed signs of frost-bite, but, thanks to Banks's indomitable energy, they were brought to the fire. Here they passed the night in a deplorable condition. They were nearly a day’s journey from the vessel, and were destitute of food, except for a vulture which had been shot. It was past eight in been the morning before any signs of a thaw set in; then they divided the vulture into ten portions—about three mouthfuls apiece—and by ten it was possible to set out. To their great surprise, they found themselves in three hours upon the beach.

After passing Cape Horn on 10 April 1769 the Endeavour sighted Tahiti, and three days after anchored in Port-Royal Bay. Within four days from this Buchan, the landscape artist, died. This island being the appointed place of observation, a fort was built and preparations made for observing the transit of Venus; during the night the quadrant was stolen by the natives, but Banks had sufficient influence over them to regain it. The transit was observed on 3 June, 1769, particulars of which are given in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ lxi. part 2.

Whilst in the island Banks lost no opportunity of observing the customs of the inhabitants, and of getting a knowledge of the natural productions also. He was present at a native funeral, blackened with charcoal and water as low as the waist. Previous to sailing from Tahiti, Banks made as complete an exploration of the island as time permitted, and sowed in suitable spots seeds of melons and other plants, which he had brought from Rio de Janeiro.

The Endeavour proceeded to New Zealand, where six months were spent in exploration of the coast and its productions.

Australia was next visited, and a small kangaroo observed for the first time in Botany Bay, which was so named by the exploring party on account of the abundance of forms of plants unknown to Banks and Solander. The course of the voyage was northward, inside the great barrier reef on the north-east coast of Queensland, and all went well until the night of 10 June 1770, when the Endeavour stuck fast on a coral rock. The ship was lightened nearly fifty tons by throwing overboard six guns, ballast, and heavy stores. Soon afterwards day broke, and a dead calm followed. The pumps were kept going, but the crew became exhausted, and the situation was very critical. But at last the ship was hauled off the rocks, and sail was set to carry her to the land, about six leagues distant. One of the midshipmen, Mr. Monkhouse, suggested the expedient of ‘fothering’ the ship, which he carried out by sewing oakum and wool on a sail and drawing it under the ship's bottom. The suction of the leak drew it inwards, so as to stay the rush of water inwards. On 17 June, a convenient harbour having been found, the Endeavour was taken into it for careening and repair. The timbers were found to have been cleanly cut away by the rocks, and, most singular of all, a fragment of rock remained plugging the hole it had made. Had it not been for this happy circumstance, the ship must have inevitably foundered. In the operation of laying her ashore, the water in the hold went aft, and the bread room was flooded. In this room were stored the dried plants collected with great trouble during the early part of the voyage. The bulk, by [p.31] indefatigable care and attention, were saved, but some were utterly ruined.

Whilst here the kangaroo and other Australian animals which were new to science were observed, and some cockles so large that one was more than two men could eat.

On 4 July Banks and his party left the Endeavour River, so named by Cook, and by the 13th they managed to find a channel to the open sea through the great Barrier Reef, which they re-entered through Providential Channel.

From the mainland the voyage was prosecuted to New Guinea, and thence by the Dutch possessions in the Malay Archipelago to Batavia, which was reached on 9 Oct. 1770. Here it was found necessary to refit. Ten days after their arrival almost everybody was attacked by fever. Banks and Solander were so affected that the physician declared their cases hopeless, unless they were removed to the country. A house about two miles out was therefore hired for them, and, to secure attentive nursing, each bought a Malay female slave. They recovered slowly, and were able to rejoin the Endeavour on Christmas day, sailing from Batavia on 27 Dec., with forty sick on board and the rest in a very feeble state. During the passage from Java to the Cape of Good Hope, Sporing, one of Banks's assistants, and Sydney Parkinson, the natural history draughtsman, died and were buried at sea: the total number lost by death being twenty-three, besides seven buried at Batavia.

The Endeavour touched at St. Helena, and left that place on 4 May 1771. On 10 June the Lizard was sighted, and two days afterwards they landed at Deal.

The success of this voyage, and the enthusiasm it evoked, led to a second voyage under the same commander in the Resolution. At the solicitation of Lord Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, Banks offered to accompany this expedition. The offer being accepted, the outfit was begun, and Zoffany the painter, three draughtsmen, two secretaries, and nine other skilled assistants were engaged. The accommodation on board was found insufficient, and additional cabins were built on deck. These were found on trial not only to affect the ship's sailing powers, but also her stability. They were therefore ordered to be demolished, and Banks abandoned his intention of sailing in the Resolution. Dr. Lind had been appointed naturalist to the expedition under a grant of 4,000 l.., but on hearing of Banks's decision he declined the post. Dr. Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg ultimately sailed with the expedition.

Being disappointed in this quarter, Banks resolved to visit Iceland with his followers and Dr. Solander. He reached that island in August 1772, climbed to the top of Hecla, and returned in six weeks, the results being summarised in Dr. von Troil's volume.

Sir John Pringle, president of the Royal Society, retired from the chair in 1777, and Banks was chosen as his successor on 30 Nov. 1778, and held that distinguished position until his death. He found, it is stated, secretaries assuming the power which belonged to the president alone, and other abuses which he determined to rectify. This intention, coupled with the fact that natural history had been less cultivated than mathematics in the Royal Society, caused an amount of discontent amongst some of the members, which broke out a few years later in the session of 1783-4. The office of foreign secretary at that time was filled by Dr. Hutton, professor of mathematics at Woolwich; and he having been charged with neglecting his duties, a rule was framed by the council requiring the secretaries to live in London. Upon this Dr. Hutton resigned, after having defended his conduct in open meeting and a vote of the society having been recorded in his favour. This action was followed by several stormy meetings, in which one of the chief speakers in opposition to the chair was the Rev. Dr. Horsley, formerly one of the secretaries and afterwards bishop of St. Asaph. His speeches were of extreme bitterness, and as a last resource he threatened to quit the society with his friends. He said: ‘I am united with a respectable and numerous band, embracing, I believe, a majority of the scientific part of this society, of those who do its scientific business. Sir, we shall have one remedy in our power when all others fail: if other remedies should fail, we can at least secede. Sir, when the hour of secession comes the president will be left with his train of feeble amateurs and that toy’ (pointing to the mace) ‘upon the table, the ghost of that society in which philosophy once reigned, and Newton presided as her minister.’ A motion was ultimately carried in support of the president's conduct, and a few members, Dr. Horsley among them, left the society. Harmony was restored, and the ascendency of Banks never again questioned.

In March 1779 Banks married Dorothea, daughter of William Weston-Hugessen, of Provender, in Kent, who survived him. He was created a baronet in 1781, invested with the order of the Bath 1 July 1795, and sworn of the privy council 29 March 1797.

In 1802 he was chosen a member of the National Institute of France; and his letter [p.132] of thanks in response for the honour was the occasion of a bitter anonymous attack by his old opponent, Dr. Horsley, who taxed him with want of patriotic feeling.

Towards the close of his life he was greatly troubled with gout, so much so as to lose at times the use of his limbs. He died at his house at Spring Grove, Isleworth, on 19 June 1820, leaving a widow but no children. By his express desire he was buried in the simplest manner in the parish church. By will he left 200/. per annum to his librarian at his death, Robert Brown, with the use of his herbarium and library during his life, the reversion being to the British Museum. Brown made over these collections to the nation within a short time after acquiring possession of them. Francis Bauer was also provided for during his life, to enable him to continue his exquisite drawings from new plants at Kew.

The character which Banks has left behind him is that of a munificent patron of science rather than an actual worker himself. His own writings are comparatively trifling. He wrote ‘A Short Account of the Causes of the Disease called the Blight, Mildew, and Rust,’ which was published in 1805, reaching a second edition in 1806, and re-edited in 1807, besides being reprinted by W. Curtis in his ‘Observations on the British Grasses,’ and in the ‘Pamphleteer’ for 1813. He was the author of an anonymous tract on the ‘Propriety of allowing a Qualified Exportation of Wool’ in 1782, and in 1809 he brought out a small work on the merino sheep, a pet subject of his as well as of the king, George III. There were some short articles by him in the ‘Transactions of the Horticultural Society,’ a few in the ‘Archieologia,’ one in the ‘Linnean Society's Transactions,’ and a short essay on the ‘Economy of a Park’ in vol. xxxix. of Young's’ ‘Annals of Agriculture.’ He published Kaempfer's ‘Icones Plantarum’ in 1791 in folio, and directed the issue of Roxburgh's ‘Coromandel Plants,’ 1795-1819, 3 vols folio. He seems to have given up all thought of publishing the results of his collections on the death of Dr. Solander in 1782 by apoplexy, although the plates were engraved and the text drawn up in proper order for press. The manuscripts are preserved in the botanical department of the British Museum in Cromwell Road.

His collections were freely accessible to all scientific men of every nation, and his house in Soho Square became the gathering-place of science. The library was catalogued by Dr. Dryander, and issued in five volumes in 1800-5, a work greatly valued on account of its accuracy. Fabricius described his insects; Broussonet received his specimens of fishes; Gaertner, Vahl, and Robert Brown have largely used the stores of plants, and four editions of ‘Desiderata’ were issued previously to the publication of the ‘Catalogues.’ Banks spared neither pains nor cost in enriching his library, which at his death must be considered as being the richest of its class. It is still kept by itself in a room at the British Museum, although the natural history collections have been transferred to the new building at South Kensington.

An unstinted eulogy was pronounced by Cuvier before the Académie Royale des Sciences in the April following the death of Banks. In this he testifies to the generous intervention of Banks on behalf of foreign naturalists. When the collections made by La Billardière during D'Entrecasteaux’s expedition fell by fortune of war into British hands and were brought to England, Banks hastened to send them back to France without having even glanced at them, writing to M. de Jussieu that he would not steal a single botanic idea from those who had gone in peril of their lives to get them. Ten times were parcels addressed to the royal garden in Paris, which had been captured by English cruisers. He constantly acted as scientific adviser to the king; it was he who directed the despatch of collectors abroad for the enrichment of the gardens at Kew.

The influence of his strong will was manifest in all his undertakings and voyages; he was to be found in the first boat which visited each unknown land. After his return he became almost autocratic in his power; to him everything of a scientific character seemed to gravitate naturally, and his long tenure of the presidential chair of the Royal Society led him to exercise over it a vigorous authority, which has been denounced as despotic.

Dr. Kippis’s account in his pamphlet seems very fairly to describe the disposition of Banks: ‘The temper of the president has been represented as greatly despotic. Whether it be so or not I am unable to determine from personal knowledge. I do not find that a charge of this kind is brought against him by those who have it in their power to be better judges of the matter. He appears to be manly, liberal, and open in his behaviour to his acquaintance, and very persevering in his friendship. Those who have formed the closest intimacy with him have continued their connection and maintained their esteem and regard. This was the case with Captain Cook and Dr. Solander, and other instances might, I believe, be mentioned to the same purpose. The man who, for a course of years and without diminution, preserves the affection of those friends who know him best, is not likely [p.133] to have unpardonable faults of temper. It is possible that Sir Joseph Banks may have assumed a firm tone in the execution of his duty as president of the society, and have been free in his rebukes where he apprehended that there was any occasion for them. If this hath been the case, it is not surprising that he should not be universally popular.’

[Manuscript Correspondence; Home's Hunterian Oration, 14 Feb. 1822; Cuvier's Eloge Historique, lu le 2 Avril 1821; Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society, &c., London, 1846; Naturalists’ Library, xxix. 17-48; Annual Biography and Obituary for 1821, pp. 97-120; Gent. Mag. 1820, i. 574, 637-8, ii. 86-8, 99; Annual Register, 1820, ii. 1153-63; Nouv. Biog. Gén. iv. 362-70; Duncan's Short Account of the Life of Sir J. Banks, Edin. 1821; Suitor's Memoirs, Paramatta, 1855; Parkinson's Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in H.M.S. Endeavour, Lond. 1773; Von Troil's Letters on Iceland, Lond. 1781; Remembrancer, April 1784, pp. 298-309; London Review, April 1784, pp. 265-71; Critical Review, April 1784, 299-305; Appeal to the Fellows of the Royal Society, Lond. 1784; Narrative of the Dissensions and Debates in the Royal Society, Lond. 1784; History of the Instances of Exclusion from the Royal Society, Lond. 1784; Kippis's Observations on the late Contests in the Royal Society, Lond. 1784; Weld's History of the Royal Society, Lond. 1848, ii. 103-305; Barrow's Sketches, Lond. 1849, pp. 12-53.]

B. D. J.


Text from: Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Dictionary of National Biography (1885), Vol. 3, 129-33 (source)


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