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The Very Social Scientist : JOSEPH BANKS: A Life By Patrick O'Brian (David R. Godine: $29.95; 328 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Frank Stewart | Stewart's most recent book is "A World Between Waves," natural - history essays on the Hawaiian Islands. He is also editor of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing

When Captain James Cook returned from his first great circumnavigation of the globe in 1771, the British public was wild with admiration. We have forgotten, though, that public adoration at the time was not for James Cook at all but for his young naturalist passenger, Joseph Banks. As quickly as the Endeavor docked, Cook was shunted aside and forgotten in the excitement. The expedition was popularly referred to as "Mr. Banks's Voyage," and some newspapers reported--wrongly--that Banks and not Cook had been the ship's commander.

Before the voyage, Joseph Banks had published virtually nothing, nor was he renowned as a botanist. Yet he was soon to become the most prominent naturalist in England. Within a very short time, he was elected president of the Royal Society, a post formerly held by Isaac Newton. And he was to remain president for more than 40 years, until his death at age 77, guiding the society to a new era of scientific professionalism.

Joseph Banks' meteoric rise to fame certainly was a result of the great success of the Endeavor 's voyage. The public was aware that wonderful and exotic creatures and plants existed in far, uncharted regions of the earth. And there was an excitement in the air about having them brought back to England, equivalent perhaps in our own times to bringing back life forms from another planet. On the voyage, Banks collected more than 1,300 new plants in 110 new genera, and specimens of more than 500 new fish and birds. As part of the Cook expedition, he also had searched for the mythical continent "Terra Incognita," and had found Australia.

Though only 28 years old when the three-year voyage ended in England, Banks was given a hero's welcome that included an honorary degree from Oxford, lavish parties hosted by London society, and a lifelong friendship with King George III. No less a person than Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus called him "the immortal Banks" and suggested a monument equivalent to the pyramids should be erected in his honor.

But Joseph Banks' rise to prominence and his subsequent renown were not based entirely on his love for science and exploration. Banks was also a remarkably social man. He had inherited his family's fortune at age 21, along with a large estate. His neighbor, Lord Sandwich, was also an avid botanist, and--fortunately for Banks--First Lord of the Admiralty, a secretary of state, and the sponsor of several expeditions on the scale of Cook's three great voyages. Sponsored in part by this influential neighbor, Banks' early career as an explorer was launched, and his introduction into London society was thorough and early.

Patrick O'Brian's interests as a biographer and historian have ranged from the Napoleonic Wars to Picasso, so it's not entirely surprising to see this British writer turn his attention to a world explorer such as Joseph Banks. As president of the Royal Society, Banks was instrumental in establishing Kew Gardens in London, added substantially to the collections of the British Museum, encouraged and watched over the development of new settlements in Australia, and influenced the fitting out and launching of expeditions such as that of the Bounty under William Bligh. Banks became a tireless supporter of other people's careers, especially the careers of young people of low means. And for this Patrick O'Brian is especially fond of Banks.

For example, although William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, the medal he received from the Royal Society did nothing to help feed himself and his sister, both seriously impoverished. O'Brian refers to a touching letter from poor Herschel thanking Banks for a pair of shoes. Banks' intercession with the king provided Herschel with a small stipend, freeing him at last from giving music lessons to pay the rent. Herschel was able to buy books and continue his career. He discovered double stars, among other accomplishments, and Caroline Herschel discovered eight comets.

O'Brian's admiring portrait of Banks gives us a man unusually affectionate in granting such favors. According to O'Brian, Banks was always ready to acknowledge superior talents and to support other men's projects. He held no grudges and, except on rare occasions, was perpetually well-mannered, hospitable and cheerful.

If there is a flaw in O'Brian's biography, it is O'Brian's own deference, sincere as it undoubtedly is. Joseph Banks is a monument in British history, and this biographer is less than ready to examine the side of Banks that, to put it kindly, could be gravely insensitive. O'Brian acknowledges Banks' youthful arrogance, caused by his sudden fame, and his testiness and self-importance in old age, after a half-century of excessive deference had been paid to him. It may take, say, an American author to fill out the less flattering sides to Banks' character and career.

This is not said, though, to detract from the book O'Brian has chosen to write. A graceful and lucid writer, he quotes frequently from the daunting number of letters written by Banks (he penned approximately 50 letters a week throughout his long life), from journals and from reports of Banks' friends and famous contemporaries.

O'Brian translates this overwhelmingly busy and social lifetime into an uncluttered and very readable book. The result is an absorbing, finely written overview, meant for the general reader, of a major figure in the history of natural science.

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