Joseph Banks was born in 1743 and was educated at Harrow, Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. While attending Oxford University, the death of his father in 1761 left him a wealthy man and provided him with the means to follow his lifelong interest in exploration, botany and natural history.
Banks became one of the most influential men of his time and was a passionate advocate and active supporter of voyages of discovery and the expansion of knowledge in the natural sciences.
In 1766 he travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador as an independent naturalist and shortly after his return in 1767 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1768, he obtained permission to accompany Captain James Cook on an expedition to Tahiti organised by the Royal Society to observe the Transit of Venus. This expedition on HMS Endeavour 1768-1771 was to become Cook's first voyage of discovery. The expedition collected specimens from South America, Tahiti and New Zealand before reaching Australia in 1770. The expedition sojourned in Botany Bay between 28 April and 5 May 1770 and from there proceeded to navigate and chart the East coast to the Torres Strait. The expedition returned to England in 1771. In 1772 Banks undertook an expedition to Iceland.
Although Banks did not participate in any further expeditions, he took a keen interest in Cook's later voyages and had an active role in publishing accounts of the voyages. He was also involved in most of the British voyages of discovery in the Pacific, including Bligh's voyage on the Bounty to obtain breadfruit from Tahiti for transportation to the West Indies, and Matthew Flinders' voyage on the Investigator which further advanced the charting of the coast of Australia. He sponsored many expeditions and sent botanists to all parts of the globe, including Australia, India, Africa, the East Indies and South America, many of them at his own expense.
Banks maintained a lifelong interest in the Pacific, in particular Australia. He advocated the establishment of colonies on the East coast of Australia, and after the founding of the settlement at Port Jackson, he became, through his myriad of contacts, the acknowledged expert on matters relating to the colony of New South Wales. He encouraged further exploration of the area and corresponded with a wide range of people, including the first four Governors of the colony.
Banks held many influential posts. He became President of the Royal Society in 1778, a position he held until his death in 1820. He was one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society, Superintendant of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, a member of the Board of Longitude and a member of both the Trade and Coin Committees of the Privy Council. He was a Trustee of the British Museum and his herbarium became one of the foundation collections of the Museum's Botanical department. He actively supported scientific endeavour and made his unparalelled natural history collections and library available to researchers.
He was created a baronet in 1781. He married Dorothea Hugesson in 1779 and died childless in 1820.