Position: Historical scientist, Field: Botany.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was a wealthy amateur botanist who joined James Cook on his voyage on the Endeavour to the South Pacific. This was Cook’s first voyage, leaving England in 1768 and returning in 1771. The Royal Society had recruited Cook for this voyage with the purpose of recording the transit of Venus across the Sun, as well as to record all manner of plant and animal life encountered.

Banks was 25 when he joined Cook on this voyage. By this age, his interest in science was already recognised, and he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. For this voyage of exploration, he recruited and funded colleagues and provided all the resources required. In particular, he recruited Daniel Solander, a Swedish botanist. Daniel Solander had trained with Carl Linneaus and was proficient in his botanical classification scheme.

The Endeavour reached New Zealand in October 1769. Although restricted to visiting the coastal regions, Banks and Solander were able to observe, record and collect new species. They collected vast quantities of plants, none of which had been recorded by Europeans before. This was the first scientific study of New Zealand’s natural history.

Upon returning to England in 1771, Banks became famous as a result of his collections on this voyage. In 1778, he was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he held for 42 years, the longest in the Society’s history. He was knighted in 1781. He was one of the first vice-presidents of the Linnaean Society (founded in 1788), a major force behind the establishment of the Royal Institution in 1800 and one of the 8 founders of the Horticultural Society, which later became the Royal Horticultural Society.

When he died in 1820, his library, herbarium and vast collections of specimens, engravings, drawings, botanical paintings and manuscripts were bequeathed to the Natural History Museum in London.

Te Papa has a duplicate set of more than 500 specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand in 1769–1770. These are the oldest specimens in the Te Papa collection.

Nature of science

Scientists’ personal interests and values can influence the questions they investigate. Banks’s interest in botany took him around the world and enabled him to observe, record and collect plant species previously unknown to the western world.

Useful links

Read the journals written by Joseph Banks during his voyage on the Endeavour at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.

    Published 15 October 2010