"The Pinnacle of Romantic Science: Joseph Banks; Scientist or Patron?"

by: Akash Balasubramanian, Shane Gizzi, Caroline Gwynn, Linda Huynh, Dylan Johnson, and Sofia Lazaro


The life and work of Joseph Banks has been studied by many for its breadth and impact on the scientific community. In the Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes looks at the evolution of different fields of science. In many of these fields, the famous Joseph Banks was influential. He started his scientific ‘career’ so to speak on the Endeavor Voyage. Curiously, he was not invited on the voyage as a scientist; he bought his way on board as a patron (citation?). This voyage was a benchmark in scientific fields such as Astronomy and Botany, but more importantly, it was the catalyst for the new found public fascination of science.
Joseph Banks Esqr.
Joseph Banks Esqr.

The question arises, then, what role did Joseph Banks play in the evolution of these sciences and in the public eye? The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss the specific impacts of Banks in the fields of Botany, Exploration and Astronomy. While his influences in these scientific fields vary, it is clear in all of them that Bank’s impact was not simply as a scientist. Bank’s influenced many and widened the breadth of his impact through his financial sponsorship and patronage. In order to fully assess the nature of Joseph Bank’s influence, it is necessary to examine the fields he is best known for and explore his work.


Joseph Banks was a patron to all sciences, but his “scientific curiosity was focused mainly on botany.” (Banks 2) In this field he was more than just a patron, but he was a leading scientist himself. Banks began his scientific career on the Endeavor voyage where he etched 743 plants along with Daniel Solander. He then had the etchings turned into water color paintings for the book he published, “Banks’ Florilegium.” Banks also had the genus Banksia named after him, and an award for success in horticulture was named the Banksian Medal. Banks was an essential botanist making many direct important contributions to the field.

Banksia Speciosa, Samuel Holden.1838
Banksia Speciosa, Samuel Holden.1838
Joseph Banks contributions to the field of botany are different from his contributions in other fields. He began his career on the 1768 Endeavor voyage to Tahiti. When the Endeavor finally arrived back in London three years later the populace became very interested in the knowledge brought back with it. Because of Banks’ interest in botany while on the trip it became a popular field among the public. The popularity of the field can be seen by its presence in poetry such as Erasmus Darwin’s “Botanical Gardens” and much of Robert Burn’s poetry. Botany’s popularity in the time after the Endeavor’s return was due in part to the accessibility to the field.

Botany is a different science than many of the others. All that is required to study botany is a plant. The accessibility of the field made it appealing, because an aspiring scientist did not need much in order to begin. This accessibility also made the field extremely appealing to women. Banks even became confident in botany’s popularity because of the large number of women becoming involved in the science. (Gascoinge 108) While the women in the field still were not recognized by the professionals, they still made up a large percentage of the era’s botanist. These new scientist helped to make women a respected part of the scientific community. Not only did Banks study botany and help to popularize the field, but he also “sent botanist to all parts of the world…often at his own expense.” (Library of New South Wales) He sent botanist to New South Wales, Australia, South America, and Australia making botany a global science. Joseph Banks indirectly influenced botany’s popularity and helped further the field by sponsoring other botanist.

Joseph Banks clearly had a strong direct influence on botany. So much influence that O’Brian believes that “had it not been for botany his mind might not have blossomed at all.” (24) However, his indirect influence also had a large impact. Banks’ indirect influence resulted in botanist visiting many different parts of the globe, the sketching and classifying of many new plants, an increased public interest in the field, and a countless number of new botanists.


The Great South Sea Caterpillar, James Gillray.1795
Exploration was yet another facet of Joseph Banks scientific repertoire. Not only was he an avid explorer but as president of the Royal Society was one of the most influential patrons of exploration. Neil Chambers is of the opinion that Banks, more than any other writer in his time, covered so vast of a field of correspondence (27). This thought is valid but to elaborate, Banks was not merely a correspondent in conversations concerning exploration but was instead a sort of father of exploration in the time period. Joseph Banks was quite the explorer himself, having traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador the year prior to his famous Endeavour voyage. His exploration success legitimized position at furthering British exploration in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He fostered Mungo Park’s journey along the Niger and in addition inspired Charles Waterton to publish his future book Wanderings in South America. Another Banks’ sponsored voyage includes William Bligh’s breadfruit voyage. Without his financial support voyages such as this could not take place. Bligh states in a letter to Banks, “I am very much obliged to you for granting me the Ephemeris and other things and hope the use I shall make of them will be very much to your satisfaction.” Bligh, in this excerpt is thanking Banks for all the provisions he has provided him with that will enable his voyage to be a success. This voyage in particular was instrumental in learning how to transplant plants from one environment to another and how this could best be done. Banks fervor for exploration was duly noted in poems also. William Cooper in The Task refers to Banks has a bee spreading honey because Banks shared the knowledge he had gleaned over his explorations with a younger generation. Not only did this cause the youth of the age to take an interest in exploration, but in addition caused an older generation to appreciate the fruits of exploration, thus ensuring the popularity of exploration. The above image, The great South Sea Caterpillar, is a satire of Banks development from an inconsequential botanist to the patriarch of exploration.
Banks knew that for most individuals it was impossible to financially support themselves on an exploration of some magnitude. For this reason Banks was a founding member of societies such as the Africa Association, whose primary purpose was to explore Africa and in addition fund exploration in Africa. Mungo Parks’ journeys were some of those financially supported by this organization. Patricia Fara argues that Banks influence British perceptions of sciences, such as exploration (199). This is another very true and relevant claim but does she does not go on to discuss that not only does Banks influence the population’s perception of exploration, but in addition influence the actual science of exploration. By doing so he invokes popular interest in the particular science. Exploration is one of many facets in which Banks displayed patronage and as a result exponentially furthered the science.


Sir Joseph Banks Bart.
Sir Joseph Banks Bart.

Despite participating in the Endeavour voyage, the main purpose of which was to chart the Transit of Venus, Banks contributed little to astronomy through his own scientific work; however, he did have great interest in the subject, not only because of his experience with the Transit of Venus, but also because England had an intense rivalry with France (Gascoigne, p. 25). In order to compete with the French in the scientific community, the British needed to make significant discoveries. To help facilitate this, Banks supported and promoted many astronomical studies as a patron, an advocate, and a figurehead.

Even as a patron of science, the majority of Banks’ influence in astronomy was not direct. He did correspond with William and Caroline Herschel, and in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 17.25% of the papers were written about astronomy; however, the bulk of the correspondence relating to astronomy was not written to or about Banks. (Gascoigne, p. 254).

This does not mean that Banks had no influence at all. In fact, Banks had a significant influence over astronomy because he was the President of the Royal Society. His relationship with the king and his position in the society allowed him to decide who received funding, who would be published, and who would be a member of the Court. For example, when Dr. William Watson asked Banks to support William Herschel, Banks used his influence with King George III to appoint Herschel to the Court and give him an income to aid in his progress (Gascoigne). Banks also supported Caroline Herschel in her astronomical pursuits, and she corresponded with him to share the news of a discovery she had made, saying, “Last night, in sweeping over a part of the heavens with my 5-feet reflector, I met with a telescopic comet.” She went on to describe the observations recorded in her brother’s journal (Herschel). Banks not only supported astronomer’s scientific pursuits, but he understood them as well. As President of the Royal Society, Banks was able to advocate for scientists before King George III, and thus give money and notoriety to those he supported--his main contribution to the field of astronomy.


Joseph Banks was unquestionably an influential scientist and figure during the Romantic period. But was he more of a figure than a scientist? In his experience with Botany, he acted primarily as a scientist- making discoveries, cataloguing new plants, etc. It’s clear that based on his achievements he shaped the science greatly during the Romantic Period. However his influence in Exploration and Astronomy was significantly more indirect. In exploration, he started as an explorer himself. Not by any merit, simply by financial means to join an exploration. After his own personal experience, he funded others to explore new places, knowing fully the potential of the return on his investment.

Based on the knowledge gained from examining Banks’ involvement in the sciences of Botany, Exploration and Astronomy, his work as a patron of the sciences outshines his work as a scientist. Banks was very much a people person; he enjoyed knowing those involved in the Royal Society as well as other scientists of the time period. He used his connections and scientific network to sponsor scientists he found promising, and influence others. In this sense, he provided Romantic science the face and financial backing it needed. The fame he gained from the Endeavor Voyage granted him the public attention necessary to drive public support for the scientific community and their work. His patronage was invaluable to the scientific community during the Romantic period. Babbage put it best when he hailed the death of Joseph Banks on June 19, 1820 as the end of an era.



In the word cloud above, you can see Banks’ relationships with the many different areas of science that he touched before and during his relationship with the Royal Society. Exploration is represented through the various words and countries to where he either sponsored visits or explored himself. Banks’ passion for plants and his contributions to the field of botany, the main reason why he embarked on the Endeavour voyage, are also highlighted. Other fields such as astronomy and observations of the scientists with whom he corresponded, including Caroline and William Herschel, can also be found on the map. A final takeaway note is the extent to which Banks involved himself, and the Royal Society, with the sciences, initiating, collecting, declaring, and encouraging other scientists to pursue their passions like Banks had himself done.


Further Reading by Key Words


Banks, R E. R. Sir Joseph Banks: A Global Perspective. Richmond, England: Published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on behalf of the co-sponsors, 1994. Print.
A biography on Joseph Banks’ life and his international attention.
Gascoigne, John. Joseph Banks and the English enlightenment: Useful knowledge and polite culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
A book about the enlightenment and Joseph Banks’ influence upon it.
O'Brian, Patrick. Joseph Banks: A life. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997. Print.
A biography about Joseph Banks and his many contributions to science in many fields.
Reuben, Paul P. "About Sir Joseph Banks." State Library of New South Wales. n.d. 20 Mar. 2011 <http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/banks.cfm>.
A summary of Joseph banks life along with a large collection of his works during his life.


Martin, John. Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. 1812. Etching. World Gallery, Uckfield, UK. Accessed 20 Mar. 2011. <http://www.worldgallery.co.uk/art-print/Sadak-in-Search-of-the-Waters-of-Oblivion-(Restrike-Etching)-37083.html>
This is a painting that represents fascination with exploration. The painting was made after Mungo Park’s journey along the Niger and is one of the most well-known pieces of artwork in this time period.

Charles, Waterton. Wanderings in South America. London: Fellowes, 1825. Print.
This book was written after Waterton’s voyage to South America. He was encouraged to write this book by Joseph Banks due to the fact that Banks never wrote an account of his voyages. He only wrote in his Endeavour journal. The book discusses Waterton’s exploits and was hugely popular in Romantic society.

Jarvis, Robin. "The Glory of motion: De Quincey, travel, and Romanticism." The Yearbook of English Studies, 34 (2004), 74-87. Print.
This text discusses the Thomas De Quincey in relation to romantic travel and exploration in a very different point of view. Jarvis acknowledges the lack of exploration in De Quincey’s works but still explains the significance of Quincey’s alternate view on exploration. In summary it is a very interesting read on romantic exploration because it is not the same sort of exploration that explorers such as Mungo Park underwent and therefore has a different sort of fascination.

Carter, Harold B. "The Royal Society and the voyage of HMS 'Endeavour' 1768-71." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 49.2 (1995), 245-260. Print.
This text is a very detailed account of the Royal Society and the Endeavour voyage and is more concerned with the whole significance of the voyage. Surprisingly, it is concerned with the construction of a replica of the ship and seeks that this will better educate the public on the voyage. The book also characterizes the opinion of the Royal Society on exploration.


Herschel, Mrs. John. Letters and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel (2 ed.). New York: Harpers, 1876. Print.
These correspondence letters are a personal insight into Caroline Herschel's life. She corresponded with Joseph Banks regarding her astronomical findings and became an independent astronomer with the help of Banks and her brother, William.

Herschel, William, and Joseph Banks. "On the parallax of the fixed stars." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 116 (1782), 266-280. Print.
This paper, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, is a detailed account of an observation of a parallax, a phenomenon in which an object appears to have moved due to a change in the viewer's perspective.

Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.
A large portion of this book deals with the astronomical advancements made by William and Caroline Herschel, as well as their relationship with Joseph Banks as President of the Royal Society.