February 13, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Joseph Banks

Yesterday was Darwin Day, on which we honor perhaps the greatest naturalist of all time...and today is the birthday of another great naturalist, Joseph Banks.

Born to a wealthy English family on this date in 1743, Banks learned about nature from nature but also at Oxford University. He met with other scientific men of his day at the Chelsea Physic Garden and the British Museum, and he became an advisor to the king of England, urging him to support voyages of discovery to new lands.

The king must've agreed, because soon Banks was off on several voyages of discovery. He described birds, including auks, when he traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador, in northern Canada. (He mistakenly called the auks penguins, but penguins are a southern-hemisphere bird, and they are not closely related to auks.)

"Kookaburra sits in
an old gum tree..."
Banks's most important voyage was with James Cook's HM Bark Endeavor. Cook and Banks traveled to Brazil, other parts of South America, then Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. Banks did the first scientific study of the beautiful, bright bougainvillea plant while in Brazil, and he and two other botanists made the first major collection of Australian flora (plants), with more than 800 specimens described and also illustrated by shipmate Sydney Parkinson.

This voyage to Australia took place from 1768 to 1771. When the explorers returned to England, they were instantly famous. Banks hired five artists to create watercolor paintings from Parkinson's drawings and notes about color. He went on to hire 18 engravers to turn the 743 completed watercolor paintings into copper plates. (This was very costly, but remember, Banks was a wealthy man!) Banks didn't publish these illustrations, but instead gave the copper plates to the British Museum.

Banks's Florilegium was finally published in 34 volumes just recently—between 1980 and 1990!

(By the way, Joseph Banks's birthday is given here in “old style”; according to the Gregorian calendar, his birthday is February 24.)

Also on this date:

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