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Born in London into a wealthy family, on 13 February 1743, Joseph Banks received his earliest education at home under private tuition. At age nine he attended Harrow School and was then enrolled at Eton School which he attended from the age of 13 until 18. In 1760 he entered Christ Church at Oxford University as a gentlemen commoner. His passion for botany and dedication to Linnean precepts had developed to such an extent that, unable to study botany at Oxford, Banks employed a private tutor, Isaac Lyons, from Cambridge. As was usual for members of his social class, Banks did not take out a degree. He came down from Oxford in 1763 an independently wealthy man following the death of his father in 1761.
As an independent naturalist, Banks participated in a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1767. Although he did not publish an account of this expedition, he allowed others full use of his collection. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquities. In 1778 he was elected President of the Royal Society, a position he held with varying degrees of support, until his death in 1820. He remains the longest serving President in the history of the Royal Society, founded almost 350 years ago.
He successfully lobbied the Royal Society to be included on what was to be James Cook's first great voyage of discovery, on board the Endeavour (1768-1771). This voyage marked the beginning of Banks' lifelong friendship and collaboration with the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, one of Linnaeus' most esteemed pupils, and the beginning of Banks' lifelong advocacy of British settlement in New South Wales. The Endeavour had sailed into Botany Bay in April 1770 and proceeded up the east coast and through Torres Strait, charting the east coast of Australia in the process.
Frustrated in his attempt at a second voyage to the South Seas, again with Cook, Banks set off in July 1772 for Iceland, his only other venture outside Europe.
From this time, Banks was actively involved in almost every aspect of Pacific exploration and early Australian colonial life. He was interested and involved in Cook's later voyages, despite his disappointing withdrawal from the seond voyage. He actively supported the proposal of Botany Bay as a site for British settlement. He proposed William Bligh to command two voyages for the transportation of breadfruit and other plants, including the ill-fated voyage on the Bounty which ended in mutiny in April 1789.
He had a role in choosing the governors of the settlement in New South Wales, founded in January 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet. It was Banks who later recommended Bligh to succeed Philip Gidley King as the fourth Governor of New South Wales, Bligh's governorship ending in deposition during the Rum Rebellion in 1808. Banks corresponded with the first four Governors of New South Wales who, while they reported officially to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, also reported privately and therefore more intimately and openly to Banks.
Practically anyone who wanted to travel to New South Wales, in almost any capacity, consulted Sir Joseph Banks. He was the one constant throughout the first 30 years of white settlement in Australia, through changes of ministers, government and policy.
Banks organised Matthew Flinders' voyage on the Investigator (1801-1803) which helped define the map of Australia. He had connections with Sir George Macartney's embassy to China (1792-1794), and with George Vancouver's epic voyage to the north-west coast of America (1791-1795).
He sent botanists to all parts of the world, including New South Wales, often at his own expense. Their collections were added to both Kew Gardens and to Banks' own collections. His collectors voyaged to the Cape of Good Hope (Francis Masson and James Bowie); West Africa (Mungo Park); the East Indies (Mungo Park); South America (Allan Cunningham); India (Anton Hove); Australia (David Burton, George Caley, Robert Brown, Allan Cunningham, George Suttor). David Nelson was sent on Cook's third voyage and Archibald Menzies was sent on Vancouver's voyage.
King George III had appointed Banks adviser to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew some time after his return from the Pacific. His informal role as governmental adviser on a range of issues was recognised in 1797 with his appointment to the Privy Council. He served as a member of the committees on trade and on coin. In his capacity as President of the Royal Society he was also involved in the activities of the Board of Longitude and the Greenwich Royal Observatory, the Board of Agriculture (founded in 1793) and the African Association (founded in 1788). He was also a Trustee of the British Museum.
In addition to the Banks family estates in Lincolnshire, Banks acquired his main London residence at 32 Soho Square in 1776. It was established as his London home and scientific base. His natural history collections were housed there and made freely available to bona fide scientists and researchers. Until his death, this house was a centre for the wider scientific community. He did not discriminate between British and foreign scientists. He was, in fact, influential in maintaining scientific relations with France, for example, during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1819 he was appointed Chairman to two committees established by the House of Commons, one to enquire into prevention of banknote forgery, the other to consider systems of weights and measures.
Banks was created a baronet in 1781 and invested Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1795. In March 1779, he had married Dorothea Hugessen (1758-1828), daughter and heiress of William Western Hugessen. They had no children.
Sir Joseph Banks died on 19 June 1820.