Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #56: Joseph Banks, A Life
Imagine Steve Jobs with social skills, or Elon Musk with scientific chops, or Neil deGrasse Tyson with political influence, and you start to get the idea of what Sir Joseph Banks was in the England of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A man of birth and wealth and privilege in a society that rewarded all three, he became a scientist on par with the great minds of the Enlightenment in his field of botany. More importantly, he enabled countless other great minds to bloom and find expression in his role as president of the Royal Society (imagine a fully-funded national academy for the sciences with the ear of government and the interest of the wealthy 1%).
Banks was known for his great friendships - with King George III, with intellectuals like Cavendish, but mostly for his unique collaboration with Captain James Cook. Banks accompanied Cook on his first great voyage of discovery in 1768-71, exploring Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti and Brazil. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the voyage - like sending our greatest astronaut to Mars with our greatest scientist and doubling our knowledge of the universe. It was a singular achievement by two extraordinary men.
There’s lots more to Sir Joe’s story - a long life, well lived. (He’s why Tom Hanks’ character in Joe vs the Volcano is Joe Banks, by the way, and why there’s a Lord Banks in my own Lost Harvest series.) This book paints a great portrait of the man - and it helps that it’s written by none other than Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin nautical fiction series.