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Born into a long line of politicians on 13 February 1743 in Westminster, England, Banks was more interested in plants than politics. He studied botany at Oxford, but when his father died leaving him a substantial inheritance, he left to pursue his passion.
In 1766 he sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador and returned with enough specimens of rocks, plants and animals to create one of Europe’s most renowned collections. Importantly, the expedition taught him the best way to safely store specimens on board ships in rough seas.
In 1768, Banks joined James Cook’s South Sea expedition to observe the transit of Venus. It was the Age of Enlightenment, when science ruled, so he brought along eight naturalists, collectors and artists. They collected in Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and New Zealand before sailing to Australia. From 28 April to 5 May 1770, Banks explored and collected in Botany Bay and from 17 June to 3 August, on the Endeavour River.
Energetic and wildly enthusiastic, Banks gathered not just plants, but birds, reptiles, fish, molluscs and insects. He also observed and took notes on Aboriginal customs. Back in England, Banks was presented to King George III, and the expedition’s vast collections, notes and drawings were sent to Banks’ house for cataloguing. He was asked by the king to develop Kew Gardens, and was mostly responsible for the introduction of 7000 exotic plant species.
In 1778 Banks was elected President of the Royal Society and over the next 40 years, despite never returning to Australia, became a key figure in its zoological and botanical investigation. He was a strong supporter of the colonisation of New South Wales and recommended Botany Bay as a site for a penal colony. He became the government’s advisor on Australia and corresponded with its first three governors.
Joseph Banks has been honoured with many place names throughout the South Pacific, including in Australia with a group of islands (Sir Joseph Banks Group) in South Australia, Banks Strait in Tasmania and suburbs in several Australian states bear his name. He is also commemorated in the names of several plants, most notably the Australian wildflower genus, Banksia.