JOHN BANISTER, VIRGINIA’S FIRST NATURALIST

BY ARTHUR V. EVANS

The significance of Virginia as a cradle of natural history study in North America is largely overshadowed by the region’s cultural milieu of indigenous peoples, colonialism, war, and social upheaval.

Nonetheless, the study of natural history in the state goes back more than 300 years. The Reverend John Banister (1650-1692) was Virginia’s first trained naturalist. Although primarily interested in plants, he was an avid student of all natural history, especially insects and spiders.

Banister trained to be an Anglican minister at Magdalen College, Oxford University. During his tenure as a student, Banister displayed a strong interest in natural history that caught the eye of one of his professors, Robert Morrison. Working on his own volume on plants, Morrison convinced the Bishop of Oxford, also a botanist, to send young Banister as a minister to the James River area in the Virginia Colony, presumably to care for souls and certainly to collect plant specimens and seeds.

Banister set sail for the New World in 1677. He arrived in Jamestown sometime before Christmas the same year on the sailing ship Hopewell and proceeded up river to the Falls, the future site of Richmond. There he met William Byrd I, a prominent landowner and trader.

Byrd was instrumental in securing books, paper, and drawing materials in England to support Banister’s natural history studies. Banister accompanied Byrd’s expeditions into the frontier, including short forays into the mountains, and gathered numerous specimens of plants, insects, and spiders.

In 1680, Banister sent his first shipment of Virginia specimens and drawings to Morrison, which included the first samples and renderings of the insectivorous pitcher plant. His drawings and specimens of insects and spiders wound up in the hands of the renowned English naturalist and physician, Martin Lister.

"Vespa Ichneumon" from "John Banister and his Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692," Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1970, University of Illinois Press).

Banister’s efforts to observe and record Virginia’s natural history were severely hampered by the financial uncertainties of his day. Ministers were largely supported by large and cumbersome donations of tobacco from colonists. Then, as now, government funding for basic scientific investigations was woefully inadequate.

To support himself, his family, and his natural history studies, Banister acquired 1,735 acres of land in Charles City County in 1690. That same year he sat on the newly formed committee that met to establish the College of William and Mary which, due to financial difficulties, did not receive its charter until after Banister’s untimely death in 1692.

While accompanying Byrd on a trip to the Roanoke River, Banister was accidentally shot and killed by another member of the party. His natural history collections and copies of his catalogues were packed up and shipped to London, but his library of natural history books remained in Virginia with Byrd, who hoped in vain that they would be used by Banister’s successor.

Some of Banister’s Virginia insect observations appeared posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions, published by the Royal Society in London in 1701 (available online at JSTOR). His lively accounts of such familiar insects as carpenter bees, hornets, body lice, lightning bugs, cicadas, dung beetles, and others make great reading.

Banister’s legacy lives on today in the Virginia Natural History Society. Founded in 1992, the Society publishes Banisteria, a journal devoted to the natural history of Virginia. Each issue is chock-full of articles covering botany, zoology, ecology, and geology, all vital to our understanding of Virginia’s incredibly diverse natural heritage.

To read more about the fascinating life and contributions of Virginia’s first naturalist see: John Banister and his natural history of Virginia 1678-1692, by Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1970).

© 2010, A.V. Evans

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