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Banister, Johnlocked

  • James Britten
  • , revised by Marcus B. Simpson jun.

Banister, John (1650–1692), naturalist, was born in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, the son of John Banister, whose family were described as 'common folk'. In 1667 he enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated BA in 1671 and proceeded MA in 1674. He remained at Magdalen, serving as a clerk and librarian from 1674 to 1676 and as a chaplain from 1676 to 1678. Banister became deeply interested in natural history during these years at Oxford, where he was probably influenced by William Browne and Professor Robert Morison, both ardent botanists. The extensive plant collections at the Oxford Physic Garden and herbaria from Africa, Europe, and the New World provided Banister with an opportunity to study much of the known flora of the day. By the time he sailed to North America in 1678 he was well qualified as a naturalist and, after brief sojourns in Barbados and Grenada, he arrived in Virginia, where he promptly began work on a 'natural history' of the colony. Little is known of Banister's private life. By 1687 he had married, his wife's name being given as Martha; their one son was named John.

Whether Banister went to America to work as a naturalist or to serve the Anglican church is uncertain, but it was not until 1689 that he received his appointment as a minister in Virginia. Meanwhile, by 1679, within a year of settling there, he was sending botanical specimens and species lists to correspondents in England, including Henry Compton, bishop of London, Martin Lister, Jacob Bobart the younger, and Morison. In 1680 he provided a lengthy catalogue of Virginia plants to John Ray, who published the list in volume two (1688) of the Historia plantarum, where he described Banister as 'eruditissimus vir et consummatissimus botanicus' (‘a most learned man and most consummate botanist’). In 1690 Banister acquired 1735 acres of land near the Appomatox River in Charles City county, Virginia. He was a founder and trustee of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. His extensive library of natural history and religious books was acquired after his death by William Byrd of Virginia.

During the last decade of his life Banister shipped plants, insects, molluscs, and fossils to his associates in England, eventually providing more than 340 plant species, more than 100 insects, and many drawings of shells, plants, and insects. While collecting plants along the Roanoke River, Virginia, in May 1692, Banister was accidentally shot and killed by a member of his exploring party. After his death many of his specimens, drawings, and species catalogues were sent to England, where some went to Oxford and others passed into the possession of Sir Hans Sloane and eventually became part of the collections at the Natural History Museum in London.

Banister was the first university-trained naturalist to send specimens, illustrations, and natural history data from North America to England. Although he died without publishing any material under his own name, he contributed significantly to the progress of natural sciences through the published works of others. Extracts of his letters to Lister appeared in volume seventeen of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1693), and some of his entomology records were printed by James Petiver in volume twenty-two of the Philosophical Transactions (1701) and in the Monthly Miscellany, or, Memoirs for the Curious (1707). Johann Frederick Gronovius used Banister's data extensively in the Flora Virginica (1739, 1743), while Carl Linnaeus relied heavily on Banister for his Virginia species descriptions in Species plantarum (1753). Linnaeus had obtained much of his information from Banister's drawings in Leonard Plukenet's Phytographia (1691–1705) and from Banister's data published in Ray's Historia plantarum (1686–1704) and in volume three of Morison's Plantarum historiae (1699). Additionally, Banister's data and writing were used without attribution by Robert Beverley in the History and Present State of Virginia (1705) and by John Oldmixon in his British Empire in America (1708).


  • J. Ewan and N. Ewan, John Banister and his natural history of Virginia (1970)
  • J. R. Bloxam, A register of the presidents, fellows … of Saint Mary Magdalen College, 8 vols. (1853–85)
  • J. Ray, Historia plantarum, 2 (1688)
  • J. F. Gronovius, Flora Virginica, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1739–43)
  • R. Beverley, The history and present state of Virginia (1705)
  • L. Plukenet, Phytographia (1691–1705)
  • R. Morison, Plantarum historiae (1699)
  • J. Oldmixon, The British empire in America, 2 vols. (1708)


  • BL, papers, Sloane MS 4002
  • Bodl. Oxf., botanical notes on Virginia
  • NHM, department of botany
  • U. Oxf., school of botany
  • Bodl. Oxf., Sherard MSS
  • NHM, Sloane MSS
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)