After studying in England, Benakis emigrated to Alexandria, Egypt, where he worked for the Greek cotton industrialist Horemi, and into whose family he married. He had six children, among whom were the writer Penelope Delta and the art collector Antonis Benakis. He accumulated a considerable fortune. As a close friend of Eleftherios Venizelos, he was elected to the Hellenic Parliament and served as Minister of Agriculture and Industry. He was elected mayor of the city of Athens in 1914.
Among other benefactions he contributed to the settlement of refugees in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish war in Asia Minor. He donated to the Red Cross Nurses' School and the Athens College. He provided for his fortune to be posthumously placed at the disposal of several charitable foundations, and his funeral was carried out at Greek public expense.
The Benakis Phytopathological Institute was one such institution founded through his legacy.
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