Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. (1743-1820), English naturalist, was born in Argyle Street, London, on the 13th of February 1743. His father, William Banks, was the son of a successful Lincolnshire doctor, who became sheriff of his county, and represented Peterborough in parliament; and Joseph was brought up as the son of a rich man. In 1760 he went to Oxford, where he showed a decided taste for natural science and was the means of introducing botanical lectures into the university. In 1764 he came into possession of the ample fortune left by his father, and in 1766 he made his first scientific expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, bringing back a rich collection of plants and insects. Shortly after his return, Captain Cook was sent by the government to observe the transit of Venus in the Pacific Ocean, and Banks, through the influence of his friend Lord Sandwich, obtained leave to join the expedition in the "Endeavour," which was fitted out at his own expense. He made the most careful preparations, in order to be able to profit by every opportunity, and induced Dr Daniel Solander, a distinguished pupil of Linnaeus, to accompany him. He even engaged draughtsmen and painters to delineate such objects of interest as did not admit of being transported or preserved.
The voyage occupied three years and many hardships had to be undergone; but the rich harvest of discovery was more than adequate compensation. Banks was equally anxious to join Cook's second expedition and expended large sums in engaging assistants and furnishing the necessary equipment; but circumstances obliged him to relinquish his purpose. He, however, employed the assistants and materials he had collected in a voyage to Iceland in 1772, returning by the Hebrides and Staffa. In 1778 Banks succeeded Sir John Pringle as president of the Royal Society, of which he had been a fellow from 1766, and held the office until his death. In 1781 he was made a baronet; in 1795 he received the order of the Bath; and in 1797 he was admitted to the privy council. He died at Isleworth on the 19th of June 1820. As president of the Royal Society he did much to raise the state of science in Britain, and was at the same time most assiduous and successful in cultivating friendly relations with scientific men of all nations. It was, however, objected to him that from his own predilections he was inclined to overlook and depreciate the labours of the mathematical and physical sections of the Royal Society and that he exercised his authority somewhat despotically.
He bequeathed his collections of books and botanical specimens to the British Museum. His fame rests rather on what his liberality enabled other workers to do than on his own achievements.
See J. H. Maiden, Sir Joseph Banks (1909).