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Banks, Sir Joseph

science plants plant major

(1743–1820) British naturalist and statesman of science.

Educated at Harrow, Eton and Oxford, Banks was wealthy and able to indulge his interest in science; he was a passionate and skilful botanist and this took him on several major expeditions at his own expense. The best known of these began in 1768; young Banks had learned that was to sail to the south Pacific to observe the transit of Venus in 1769 and realized this would be a great opportunity to see entirely new plants and animals. He joined the expedition, which lasted 3 years, with his staff of eight, and returned with a large collection of new specimens to find himself a celebrity. The voyage was the first to be organized and equipped for biological work, even though the Government’s secret plan was political – to secure a territorial advantage over the French. Banks brought back 1300 new plant species, as well as the idea that Botany Bay would form a suitable penal settlement.

He became president of the Royal Society in 1778 and held the post for 42 years, as the dominant personality in British science. His successes included the introduction of the tea plant in India (from China) and breadfruit in the Caribbean (after a frustrated first attempt in which HMS Bounty , carrying the breadfruit, was diverted by a mutiny). Banks did much to establish the Botanic Garden at Kew, which he planned as a major collecting centre and source of advice on all aspects of plants.

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