Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith and the Linnean Society

Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith and the Linnean Society
Annual Lecture of the Sir Joseph Banks Society delivered at Horncastle College on 5 May 2010
Mark R. D. Seaward
Honorary Professor, Universities of Bradford and Lincoln 

Abstract    The names of Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith and the Linnean Society are inextricably linked. Banks, Smith’s life-long friend and mentor, instigated his purchase of the world famous collections of Carl Linnaeus, as a consequence of which Smith founded the Linnean Society in 1788. The rationale for its founding was to house, curate and research these valuable collections (preserved plants and animals, minerals, books and correspondence), but they were to remain in Smith’s possession until after his death in 1828. However, they were difficult to access, since although they were kept at his London house where the Linnean Society frequently met, it would appear that members received no special privileges in consulting them and even their use of the Society’s own library was restricted; Smith’s relocation first to Hammersmith in 1795 and then to Norwich in 1796 rendered them yet more inaccessible. Furthermore, Smith’s will did not bequeath the collections to the Linnean Society; instead, the Society had to wait until 1829 before they could purchase them (minus the minerals) from the executor of Smith’s estate, being forced to borrow money for this purpose, and only managing to pay off the debt in 1861. Further connections between Banks and Smith with the Linnean Society are highlighted in this lecture. 

To set the scene, Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish naturalist, had hastily moved his collections of natural history books, plants etc. out of Uppsala at the time of the city’s 1766 fire and subsequently housed them in a small, unheated stone building that he had constructed as a museum in the grounds of his country estate at Hammarby. He died in 1778, bequeathing his collections to his wife, Sara Lisa, explicitly prohibiting his son from having access to them. They therefore remained locked away at Hammarby while Sara Lisa tried to sell them, but when she failed, she reluctantly allowed her son to remove them to Uppsala where he spent a considerable time trying to remedy the damage they had endured by damp, mould, insects and rodents.

After the sudden death of Linnaeus’s son in November 1783, the collections reverted to his father’s widow, Sara Lisa, who again attempted to sell them to Sir Joseph Banks in the light of his earlier interest in buying the collections after Linnaeus’s death – Banks had actually offered £1200 for them in 1778. However, on this occasion Banks was apparently not in a position to do so, but recommended to a wealthy young protégé, the 24-year old James Edward Smith, that he should secure the collection himself. Smith just happened to be breakfasting with Banks at his home on the morning of 23 December 1783 when the letter arrived from Dr Johann Acrel, a friend instructed by Sara Lisa and her daughters, offering Banks the option of buying all the collections for 1000 guineas. It can be claimed therefore that it was due to Banks, as you will hear later, that the Linnean Society was founded, the raison d’être being the guardianship of the Linneaan collections.

Not without some difficulty, Smith eventually persuaded his father to put up the necessary money for its purchase. His letter to his parents read “I hope you and mother will look on this scheme in as favourable a light as my friends here do”. He explained that there was no time to be lost as many people wished to purchase the collection, including the Empress Catherine II of Russia. To begin with, his father, not unnaturally, refused – this was a large sum of money for a cloth and silk merchant with a sizeable family still to be educated. He also pointed out to his son that “it will require no small nor inelegant house to place such a capital collection”. Smith’s father could not believe that the Swedes would allow the collections to leave their country for so paltry a sum and cautioned his son “against the enthusiasm of a lover or the heart of an ambitious man”. However, when Smith received the detailed catalogue, his father and brother hurried to London to talk it over. His father was impressed with the immense value of the collection, and by 10 April 1784 he had been persuaded to provide the money. By August, James Smith had persuaded the Treasury that everything except the books should be admitted and and delivered to him without duty or any charges whatsoever. Smith also heard from Johann Acrel that the collection had now been despatched for Stockholm and that it included a very rare book, the 1st volume of Rudbeck’s Campi Elysii, of which there were only two or three copies in the world, the rest having been burnt in the terrible fire of 1702 in Uppsala. It would appear that Smith knew that Joseph Banks would offer £100 for it.

At the end of October 1784, the entire collection, shipped in the English brig Appearance, arrived at the Port of London; it comprised 19,000 sheets of preserved plants, 3200 insects, 1500 shells, 2500 minerals, almost 3000 books and about 3000 letters and manuscripts, the whole contained in 26 cases. The freight cost £80 and the Captain was paid £5. Johann Acrel was paid for his services in the form of £4.10s worth of medical books. The ship had just sailed when Gustav II of Sweden returned home from France. It is alleged that he sent a vessel to the Sound to intercept the brig, but it was too late. There is no foundation for this story, but a lot of ill-feeling was certainly generated in Swedish academic circles. The Swedes were positive that if the King had not been absent, the collection would have remained in Sweden.

Smith originally intended to house the collections in the British Museum, but later decided to take a house so that they would be more accessible to him and his friends. So he hired rooms in Paradise Row in Chelsea, and Banks and Jonas Dryander, at that time Banks’s Librarian, helped him to arrange and make a preliminary study of the collections, including a comparision with the Banks’ herbarium (then at his home in Chelsea). After their studies, Smith disposed of a number of supposed duplicates from the Linnaean plant collection, including 85 to Banks himself, which are now housed in the Natural History Museum. In November 1785, Smith’s father tried to recall his son’s attention to medicine, but he did not heed this advice, making plans for a tour of the continent to escape from dissecting rooms and hospitals. Before leaving, he discussed with his friends the idea of superseding the Society for Promoting Natural History to which they belonged (Smith being admitted in February 1784) by one bearing the name of Linnaeus. The 27-year old Smith, now a Fellow of the Royal Society, set out on his tour in 1786, with flattering letters of introduction provided by Banks. After vivas delivered in Latin and written examinations, he was awarded his doctorate by Leyden University in June 1786. From Holland, he moved to France and then to Italy, where again via a letter of introduction from Banks he was received by the British Ambassador at Naples, Sir William Hamilton, the young doctor as usual quite unfazed by the titled company. In November 1787, he returned to England having been away 17 months. On his return to London in February 1788, Smith left his Chelsea lodgings and took a house in Great Marlborough Street. He informed his father that he could hardly be expected to give up natural history and that medicine was to take second place, his main objective being to found a new Natural History Society which would incorporate Linnaeus’s herbarium and library.

James Smith, together with Samuel Goodenough (a classical scholar and keen naturalist, his clerical and teaching leading to his appointment as Bishop of Carlisle in 1808) and Thomas Marsham (employed in the Exchequer Loan Office, with a particular interest in insects), after consulting Joseph Banks and gaining his approval, achieved their objective and the Linnean Society of London, to honour Linneaus’s material (and only indirectly its collector), was founded as a result of preliminary meetings held at the Marlborough Coffee House in Great Marlborough Street on 26 February and 18 March 1788. At the first meeting, the three co-founders, Smith, Goodenough and Marsham, were elected President, Treasurer and Secretary respectively. The latter meeting is accepted as the date when the Society was instituted, but on 8 April 1788, the first General Meeting was held at Smith’s house. Rather interestingly, Banks opposed the formation of many scientific societies, such as the Geological Society in 1807, and the Astronomical Society in 1820, on the grounds that they were likely to encroach on a field of knowledge hitherto within the remit of the Royal Society. In the case of the Linnean Society, Banks raised no objections, and in fact it gained both his approval and support. Perhaps it was a fortunate coincidence that its aims were similar to those in which the President of the Royal Society was himself keenly interested; however, he saw it as complementing rather than competing with the activities of the Royal Society. In a letter to a Swedish naturalist a few weeks before the Linnean Society was instituted Banks commented that he thinks that “it will flourish as great care is taken…to keep out improper people”.

The Society started with 20 Fellows, 39 Foreign Members and 11 Associates, as well as three Honorary Members, including Joseph Banks, a Founder Member of the Society but not present at the initial meetings; Jonas Dryander, the curator of Banks’s own library and collections, was appointed as its Honorary Librarian. By 1800 the membership had grown to 209, and by 1820 to 463; clearly, the rapid growth of the membership demonstrated that the Society was meeting a need which already existed and that a brilliant future awaited it.

Regular Linnean Society meetings, two per month, were held in Smith’s house at 12 Great Marlborough Street; but after the first 16 months, the Society began to feel the strain and prudently instituted a recess from July to October, a practice more or less retained to this day. The Society arranged to pay an annual rent of £20 to Smith for the use of two rooms, one as a meeting room and the other as a library, which grew mainly as a consequence of donations, the early donors being mainly Banks and Dryander. Although the Linnaean collections were in Smith’s house, there is no evidence that the Society received any special privileges in consulting them; even access to the Society’s own library was restricted to times convenient to the President. Furthermore, the actual Linnaean collections did not come into the possession of the Society for 40 years. Smith was appointed the Linnean Society’s first President, and despite the claim he made in his first Presidential address to the Society in 1788 that, as far as the Linnaean collections were concerned, he considered himself “a trustee of the public”, holding them “only for the purpose of making them useful to the world and natural history in general, and particularly to the society”, he did not bequeath them to the Society in his will. Instead, the Society had to wait 41 years until after Smith’s death before they could purchase the collections.

Soon after its foundation, the Linnean Society began to acquire a collection of mainly natural history specimens, which in time led to the formation of a formally recognised Museum collection additional to those of Linnaeus and Smith purchased in 1829. The Museum appears to have grown by accident rather than design, as the Fellows of the Society donated specimens to the collection, as well as copies of their books to the Society’s Library. No clear exposition of the Society’s motive in attempting to form a museum of natural history has been discovered in its records. However, in the absence of a policy to actively discourage the collection of specimens, it was almost inevitable that naturalists would deposit these with the Society. One of the major factors in this apparent choice of the Society as the recipient of gifts of specimens, rather than the British Museum, may have been the presumption that such collections would be more easily available for examination, bypassing the wearisome procedure for prior application to the Trustees of the British Museum to issue a pass in order to study their collections and for a Museum officer to be in attendance at the prearranged times. Furthermore, collections at the British Museum at that time were either on display or in inadequately lit basement stores to which access was difficult, many specimens were poorly documented and/or identified, and, with very few exceptions, the Keepers did not show any kind of flair for their work. In 1792, for example, Banks presented “numerous animals, most of them in spirits” to the British Museum. According to one visitor, these specimens “were sent down into the basement…and allowed to take care of themselves, or spoil if they preferred it”. Here they remained until 1809 when many of them “chiefly spoiled; along with a multitude of others in a similar state” were sold to the Royal College of Surgeons, and the remainder were probably destroyed.

Another strong motive for Fellows to donate specimens was to support the papers they were reading at Society meetings or publishing in its Transactions. Incidentally, the cost of the plates of the first volume of Transactions published in 1790 was paid for by Banks. Another category of presented specimens which the Society would have had difficulty in refusing when offered were those from distinguished patrons or men of science such as the extensive collections of insects and shells donated by Banks in 1804 and 1815 respectively.

Despite the poor picture painted regarding the conditions at the British Museum, a comparable state of affairs arose at the Linnean Society: since it had no stated role for the acquisition of a general natural history collection, there appears to have been no attempt to evolve a policy for labelling, storing or cataloguing specimens. In consequence, they were never arranged in a logical order, the collections being simply amassed and tucked away wherever space allowed. Nevertheless, donations continued to be made and the confusion only worsened. Furthermore, the several changes of premises for the Society, each of which rarely had adequate space for its purposes, added to the problem. Some attempt to organise the collections was made in 1812, but there appears to be no record of the discussions of the curatorial committees appointed to this task. In the 1850s the Council decided not to accept any further gifts of specimens – it is uncertain how effective this policy was, the condition of the Museum being described in April 1863 as: “a gradual accumulation…of isolated objects and small collections, and that not only are the attics and garrets full of parcels and cases which neither are, nor can be, of any practical use in their present state, but that the wall-room required for additional book shelves is occupied in a similar manner”. So, at a Special General Meeting of the Fellows, it was decided to retain only part of the collection, particularly the plants, and to give the remainder to the British Museum or sell at auction. As a consequence, the Society retained the Linnaeus and Smith collections, while the insect and shell collections of Banks, as well as a few other important animal collections, were presented to the British Museum, and the remaining collections of birds, mammals, shells, insects etc. were sold.

The Banks collections included more than 4000 specimens of insects, including type material, registered by taxonomic groups, but the shell collection of more than 1000 specimens was unregistered since very few of the specimens were identified. Further work has shown that the collections of shells, while of historic interest, lack the taxonomic importance of the insect collection. The shell collection was only partially identified by Banks’s Librarian, Daniel Solander (who accompanied Banks on Cook’s first voyage from 1768 to 1771 and also to Iceland in 1772); his premature death in 1782 resulted in none of the new taxa that he had recognised being published; this was in contrast to the insect collection studied by the Danish entomologist Johann Fabricius, whose descriptions of new taxa were published in 1775.

As regards the material which went to auction, the British Museum purchased several lots of taxonomic significance, but the fate of some of it, often unidentifiable from the Council list or the sale catalogue, cannot be traced. Furthermore, it is probable that much material, including specimens of taxonomic or historical importance, had been lost or destroyed during the 75 years between the first donation and the final decision to disband the Museum. Ironically, despite all the efforts to clear the Museum of miscellaneous collections, a substantial amount of material escaped being sold, and as late as 1962, 45 other collections remained and these were given to the British Museum (Natural History) or other suitable institutions. Had the zoological component of the Linnean Society Museum been cared for properly in terms of storage and curation, it would undoubtedly have been one of the most important zoological collections of the period. Its time span, from the 1790s to the 1850s, covered a period of intense geographical exploration and scientific endeavour, mainly by members and correspondents of the Society, at home and abroad, created a network of naturalists eager to enrich the collections.

The strength of the collection lay in the wealth of its holdings from Australia, influenced no doubt by the presence of Robert Brown (the Linnean Society Clerk and Librarian 1805-1822 and President 1849-1853), particularly his connections with Joseph Banks and Matthew Flinders. Brown was also Bank’s Librarian from 1810 to 1820, who bequeathed him a life-interest in his house, library and collections. Brown handed over the library and collections to the British Museum upon his appointment as Keeper of the Banksian Botanical Collection there. It was through Banks that Brown was appointed naturalist on the Australasian Expedition from 1801 to 1805 under the captaincy of Flinders, the Lincolnshire-born explorer. The dispersal of the Museum in 1863 was farsighted as it freed the Society’s officers and Fellows to concentrate on caring for Linnaeus’s collections and library which have incomparably greater importance.

In 1795, James Smith moved from Great Marlborough Street to Hammersmith, not only taking the Linnaean collections with him, but also requiring the Society to find new premises. In partnership with the Westminster Library, the Society leased 10 Panton Square. Early in 1796, Smith married Pleasance Reeve, and later that year he and his wife took the momentous decision to live in Norwich for nine months of the year, and in London for the remaining three months. Smith’s attendance at Linnean Society meetings began to wane, and naturally the Society was appalled at the idea of an absentee President. Furthermore, before he left, Smith sold by auction the minerals of the Linnaean collections, but took with him the botanical and zoological specimens, as well as the library and manuscripts of Linnaeus. As its title implies, the rationale for the formation of the Linnean Society was essentially to embrace the Linnaeus collections. However, the Society had now lost the collections, since they were now housed in Smith’s private residence, a three-and-a-half storey terrace house, at 29 Surrey Street, Norwich. Smith did not practise medicine in Norwich, but his botanical studies, voluminous publications and correspondence (much of it with the officers of the Linnean Society) kept him busy (each day he worked six hours until 3.00 pm, rested, then two hours in the evening), and he had numerous visitors to study the collections.

In 1800, the idea of a Charter for the Linnean Society was mooted, but Smith’s proposal that a copy of the Charter should be shown to Banks never happened, as the then Secretary thought it wise that the Charter bearing Smith’s name should not been seen by King George III as Smith had in the past annoyed the royal family in print. However, in 1802, the Linnean Society duly received its Charter, and in 1814, the Society invited the Prince Regent to become its Patron; on his acceptance of this, Smith, then President, received the honour of knighthood – the first person in Britain to be so honoured specifically for services to a branch of natural history. However, with their President and collections now residing in Norwich, the Society struggled on, the President attending fewer and fewer meetings and the Secretary noting that his task was becoming increasingly burdensome, “The squabblings amongst members…making the Society more of a tavern”. However, he carried on for another five years and superintended the Society’s move in 1821 to their new premises at 32 Soho Square, formerly the home of Sir Joseph Banks.

Banks, who had always felt a deep interest in the botany taught at Cambridge, was also responsible for encouraging Smith to make an effort to resuscitate its study there. Accordingly, in 1813, Smith applied to the incumbent professor, John Martyn, who through declining years and failing health had allowed the subject to languish almost to the point of extinction, for his permission to endeavour to improve matters by the delivery of a course of public lectures. Although Martyn was not only willing but eager to accept the offer, the Trustees opposed this and the project fell through. However, in 1818 Martyn took the initiative and applied for Smith to be allowed to lecture as his deputy. The Vice-Chancellor acceded to the request, and Smith issued a printed notice of his proposed course. Unfortunately 18 College tutors sent a written complaint to the Vice-Chancellor stating their disapproval of their pupils attending the public lectures of “any person who is neither a member of the University, nor the Church of England”. One of his chief opponents remarked that he “objected to students attending botanical lectures as it took them away from their more important studies. Again bigotry carried the day, and although Smith might well have lectured without paying regard to their attitude, he decided to give up the idea rather than enter upon a contest which might have been prolonged and would certainly have been disagreeable. However, in 1818 he wrote a pamphlet entitled Considerations respecting Cambridge, more particularly relating to the Botanical Professorship. In 1819, Smith was a candidate for the Chair of Botany in the University of Edinburgh, but he was unsuccessful.

Following Smith’s death in 1828, the Linnean Society was forced to borrow money in 1829 towards the purchase of supposedly their own collections for £3,150 from the executor of Smith’s estate, only managing to completely pay off the debt in 1861. (There was some truth in Goodenough’s remark made to Smith some years before that “Members and wealth are real necessaries to a society as it enables them to carry matters into effect, to purchase, reward and publish”.) With the collections restored to the Society, “the peculiar propriety” of its name, they added to its prestige, but their acquisition directly impoverished it financially for a generation. In 1857, these internationally important assets of the Society were moved to Burlington House, where they have remained to this day.

James Edward Smith chose his friends well and always instinctively knew who would be useful to him, one of his most valuable acquaintances at that time being Sir Joseph Banks. Apart from Samuel Goodenough, Banks was the only one of his contemporaries who dared criticise Smith. Smith was easily offended and could be difficult, on one occasion accusing Banks in a letter to Goodenough of “a want of heart and principle”, adding “You know how long I have been aware of queerness in the great man”. However, when he heard that Banks was dying, he commented admiringly that Banks was an “edifying spectacle of patience and cheerfulness”. After Banks’s death, Smith gave the maximum subscription of £10 towards the purchase of the marble bust executed by the successful English sculptor Francis Chantrey in 1822, writing “No one had a greater claim on his gratitude and regard, nor can anyone be more ready to acknowledge it”. Smith kept in touch with Lady Banks and so did Goodenough, who criticised her for wearing gay colours only two years after her husband’s death, remarking that she was “fat, talkative and laughing as ever” and that “ladies do not mourn or affect to mourn as long as they used to”.

To summarize, Joseph Banks was the first Honorary Member of the Linnean Society and had been James Edward Smith’s guide and mentor since he was a young man, providing him with the opportunity to buy Linneaus’s collections, and thereby shaping the course of his life. Though a naturalist of considerable attainments, Banks did little technical work himself, particularly in published output, to advance the science of botany, but indirectly no one effectively exercised so great an influence on the subject for almost half a century. Science would have been very materially poorer but for his career: Banks’s wealth and the scientific position which he had attained made him the most conspicuous figure of the day in all that pertained to natural history. His house in Soho became the recognised centre of science, and his personal influence was paramount among its devotees. While he lived, he was certainly the most imposing figure of English science. Banks was extremely autocratic, at times almost despotic, but, according to his contemporaries, despite this overbearing attitude he was liberal and open in his behaviour to his acquaintances, and very persevering in his friendships; those, such as James Smith, who knew him most intimately, continued their connection with him and maintained their esteem and regard. Another feature of Banks’ his personality was his ardent desire for the development of proper teaching in the universities; hence, for example, his efforts to secure Smith as Martyn’s deputy at Cambridge. In view of the declining interest in science in recent years, the magic of the subject so poorly reflected in its teaching at all levels, we clearly need a modern-day equivalent of Joseph Banks to champion the desirability of scientific study and research, and to galvanise those in high office into more actively supporting such causes.


NB.  The above provides only the basic text of the lecture, since the complementary illustrations and their captions/comments are lacking. A large number and wide range of published sources have been consulted for its preparation, the most useful being:

Gage, A.T. & Stearn, W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London. Published for the Linnean Society by Academic Press, London.

Gardiner, B., ed. (2007) The Linnaean Collections. Special Issue no. 7 of The Linnean.