The remarkable life of Sir Joseph Banks

In the course of writing a non-fiction children’s book on the mutiny on the Bounty, I recently made the acquaintance of someone I’m sure I should have already known about: Sir Joseph Banks.

Banks, who died 188 years ago last Thursday, was a remarkable scientist (though the word wasn’t in use at that time) whose influence continues to be felt.

I often write about studies in which teams of university professors have focused with laser-like intensity on some small aspect of how the world works. The results of such studies are then used to make predictions about how some slightly larger aspect of the world might work.

Banks, though, was much more of a generalist: interested in pretty much everything, although he did have a particular bent for botany.

Born in London on February 13, 1743, Banks inherited a great deal of wealth at age 18, so much so that when he studied at Oxford, he personally paid Cambridge botanist Israel Lyons to deliver a series of lectures.

Banks never actually received a degree from Oxford, but that didn’t stop him. He cultivated other men of science as friends, and in 1766 at the age of 23 made his own scientific mark by sailing to Newfoundland and Labrador and returning both with the first scientific description of the flora and fauna there and many never-before-seen specimens.

Just two years later, at the age of 25, Banks joined Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour when he set sail in August 1768 on the first of his three great voyages of discovery.

Cook’s primary destination was Tahiti, where British astronomers were to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun, but along the way he also made discoveries in New Zealand and Australia (where the famous Botany Bay gets its name from Banks’s primary interest).

Banks returned with thousands of specimens, drawings, and paintings (not to mention a discreet tattoo), and a slightly scandalous reputation based on his activities with Tahiti’s famously friendly women. He became the talk of London, and, soon after, King George III’s botanical adviser. (Together they planned what became the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.)

Banks made a third voyage, to Iceland, and then in 1778 was elected president of the Royal Society. Over the next three decades he wrote and received tens of thousands of letters from all over the world, full of questions and scientific observations.

He became, in fact, what you might call the Google of his day: people turned to him for knowledge about everything from who wrote “God Save the King” to the best way to raise a ship from a riverbed.

But he not only dispensed answers, he also collected information: notes on battles between spiders and flies, specimens of seeds and insects, even tales about unicorn and mermaid sightings.

Most importantly, very few scientific expeditions were undertaken without his consultation. As a result, Banks’s influence is still with us: among other things, he was the greatest proponent of the British settlement of Australia, and he sponsored the voyage of George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest.

(Oh, and the connection with the mutiny on the Bounty? Slave plantation owners in the West Indies wanted breadfruit transplanted to the Caribbean as a staple food for slaves, and urged Banks to mount an expedition to do so. HMV Bounty was adapted for that purpose and put under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh. Alas, Bligh’s crew, after five months in Tahiti, decided they preferred life in the South Seas to life in the Royal Navy, took the ship and dumped the breadfruit into the sea. Bligh, who made it back to England after an incredible open-boat voyage across the Pacific, successfully completed his task with a second, better-equipped expedition.)

It’s hard to imagine a single scientist today having the kind of impact today that Banks did two centuries ago, but besides indicating that times have changed, Banks’s tale illuminates the influence that science, the systematic exploration of the world, began to have very early on.

That influence continues. If anything, it’s greater than ever.

Which is why science is worth keeping an eye on…and why I write this column.

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