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Sex, Bounty, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks

Sex, Bounty, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks
Patricia Fara
Columbia University Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 168 p., $19.50

Science historian Patricia Fara paints an in–depth picture of the status of botanical science in Britain during the eighteenth century Era of Enlightenment. The central figure of her story, Joseph Banks, made his way to the pinnacle of British scientific society as President of the Royal Society, based on his support of the controversial scientific classification system of Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, the "Father of Taxonomy." He remained in this office for forty years, becoming one of the most influential persons in the making British imperial policy, promoting botanical explorations for the ultimate good of the British economy and empire.

Banks climbed his way to the top of both the dilettantes and scientists of the Royal Society by going on a botanical expedition to the South Pacific. Despite scandal over his sexual encounters while on expedition, he parlayed his experiences as a botanist into this leadership position and eventually eased out Linnaeus, becoming the more powerful political and scientific figure. He spearheaded a mutually dependent relationship between science and the nation, one that still endures today.

Fara has an engaging literary style. She strips away the reverential veneers that enshroud so many prominent historic figures, revealing "warts and all," and yet she shows great respect for a person’s intrinsic worth. Unlike some historians who tend to romanticize the upper classes, Fara presents the readers with a good perspective on the pomposity and superciliousness of British society at the time. Though small in size, this book is highly recommended to all botanists, horticulturists, and gardeners who would like to know more about plant exploration.

— Marilyn K. Alaimo, garden writer and volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden