Joseph Banks, British naturalist and patron of science, developed an interest in botany while attending Eton College from 1756 to 1760. He went to Oxford in December 1760 and studied botany there, receiving the degree Master of Arts (MA) in 1763. During his studies his father, William Banks, died, leaving him heir to a landed fortune. Joseph was handsome, wealthy, erudite and a respected naturalist and became a patron of science, financially supporting scientific endeavours during his lifetime and leaving his remaining wealth to the nation. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1766 and that same year acted as naturalist on an expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, led by C. Phipps. The journal that he kept on this expedition was eventually published in 1971.
In August 1768 he sailed with the first expedition of Captain James Cook in Endeavour, as the most distinguished of a small group of scientists, including his botanist friend Daniel Solander*. Banks had secured his position in the expedition by contributing 10 000 pounds sterling towards the cost of the voyage and through his influence with members of the Royal Society. The expedition travelled via Cape Horn to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus there in 1769. They returned via Australia, being the first Europeans to land on the southern part of that continent. On 14 March 1771 the expedition landed at Cape Town and remained there to 14 April. Banks spared neither time nor expense in collecting plants, insects and animal skins, though owing to Solander being ill he did not travel inland. In his journal he described the Dutch East India Company's garden, the adjacent small zoo, and some of the local Khoi people. He was so impressed with the Cape flora that on his return to England he arranged for the Kew garderner Francis Masson* to visit the Cape to collect plants.
Banks's voyage in the Endeavour was a great success. He planned to accompany Cook on the latter's next expedition, but withdrew when it became clear that his demands for shipboard accommodation for a large scientific party would not be met. Instead he chartered a ship and took his party to study the geology and natural history of Iceland in 1772. However, he remained a supporter of Captain Cook and his work. In 1773 he became involved with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near London. His position, and his influence with King George III, enabled him to send collecting expeditions throughout the world. As the first director of the gardens he was instrumental in introducing the cultivation in Britain of useful and decorative plants from various regions, including fuchsias, hydrangeas, and cycads. He also played a key role in transforming Kew herbarium into a scientific centre devoted to botanical exchange.
During his voyages Banks made vast collections of plants and other natural history specimens at, among others, Newfoundland, Madeira, Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand, Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, and various islands. He planned to publish the botanical and zoological drawings made on his travels, with descriptions by Solander, but did not do so. The engraved plates for this publication ended up in the British Museum. After more than a century a three-volume work, Illustrations of Australian plants collected in 1770 during Captain Cook's voyage round the world in H.M.S. Endeavour by the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks... and Dr Daniel Solander was published in London (1900-1905). Banks's journal of the Endeavour expedition, which reflects his wide interests and high spirits, was later edited by Sir Joseph Hooker* and published in 1896.
Though Banks was not an important scientist, he published some articles on agriculture and horticulture. These dealt with the cause of rust in corn (1805), the introduction of the potato into the United Kingdom (1812), and the first appearance of the apple tree insect in Britain (1817). Despite his limited scientific contributions his considerable influence and wealth made him an important force in the development of British science, and of botany in particular. In 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he retained to his death 42 years later. As the society's president he became an ex-officio member of the Board of Longitude and in 1820, a few months before his death, supported a proposal by that board to establishe the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope. He married Dorothea Hugesson in 1779, but they had no children. Created a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in 1781, he became a member of the Privy Council in 1797 and often acted as advisor to the British government. His extensive library and natural history collections were left to the British Museum when he died. An Australian genus of the protea family (Banksia) and several species of plants were named in his honour, including the South African Erica banksia.