Born in London to a wealthy family, Joseph Banks acquired a passion for botany while at Oxford University in the early 1760s; it was an exciting time for the field. In the decades following the revolution sparked by Linnaeus, and after inheriting his father's fortune, Banks set himself up as a full-time botanist. He soon established his name by publishing the first Linnean descriptions of the plants and animals of Newfoundland and Labrador.
He was promptly elected to the Royal Society and, as a rising young figure in his field, was appointed to a joint Royal Navy/Royal Society scientific expedition to the south Pacific Ocean on the HMS Endeavour, 1768- 1771. This was the first of James Cook's voyages of discovery into that region.
This voyage went to Brazil and other parts of South America, Tahiti (where the transit of Venus was observed, the primary purpose of the mission), New Zealand, and finally the New South Wales region of Australia. While in Brazil, Banks made the first scientific description of a now common garden plant, bougainvillea (named for Cook's French counterpart, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville).
It was the time in Australia which was to lead to Banks' second great passion, however, the British colonization of that continent. He was to be the greatest proponent of settlement in New South Wales, as is hinted by its early colloquial name: Botany Bay. The identification may have been even closer, as the name "Banksia" was proposed for the region by Linnaeus. In the end, a genus of Proteaceae was named in his honour as Banksia.
He was made a baronet in 1781, three years after being elected president of the Royal Society. The latter position he would hold for a record forty-two years, and from it he could direct the course of British science for the first part of the 19th century. He was directly responsible for several famous voyages, including that of George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest of North America, and William Bligh's voyages to transplant breadfruit from the South Pacific to the Caribbean Sea islands; the latter brought about the famous mutiny on HMS Bounty. The redoubtable Bligh was also appointed governor of New South Wales on Banks' recommendation, which in turn led to the Rum Rebellion of 1808.
During much of this time, Banks was an informal adviser to King George III of the United Kingdom on Kew Gardens, a position that was formalized in 1797. Banks dispatched explorers and botanists to many parts of the world; through these efforts Kew Gardens became arguably the pre-eminent botanical gardens in the world, with many species being introduced to Europe through them.
Finally, Banks was a major financial supporter of William Smith in his decade-long efforts to create a geological map of England, the first geological map of an entire country in history.
He died in London at the age of 77.
Banks' impact on history was as a systematizer par excellence, very much in step with his times. He was also a major supporter of the internationalist nature of science, both being actively involved in keeping open the lines of communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. As befits someone with such a role in opening the South Pacific to Europe, his name dots the map of the region: Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand, and Banks Island in modern-day Vanuatu.
An excellent and finely-detailed biography of Banks was written by Patrick O'Brian.