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Robert Brown (1773–1858)

by N. T. Burbidge

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Robert Brown, by Henry Pickersgill, 1864

Robert Brown, by Henry Pickersgill, 1864

National Library of Australia, 11278663

Robert Brown (1773-1858), botanist, was born on 21 December 1773, the son of Rev. James Brown, an Episcopalian, and his wife Helen, née Taylor. He attended Montrose Academy, proceeded to Marischal College, Aberdeen, Scotland, as Ramsay scholar in 1787, moved with his family to Edinburgh in 1789 and studied medicine at the university. He did not take a degree but showed special interest in natural history. In 1795 he was commissioned in the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles as surgeon's mate. He accompanied the regiment to Northern Ireland, where he remained until 1800 and took every opportunity to study natural history. While in London on recruiting service he met Jonas Dryander, librarian to Sir Joseph Banks, and through him in November 1798 became an associate of the Linnean Society. Since military life was not to his taste, Brown allowed his name to be submitted to Banks as a naturalist to accompany Matthew Flinders' expedition which was then preparing; when Mungo Park refused to go, Banks in December 1800 offered the post of naturalist to Brown. He accepted with alacrity, though Banks had to apply pressure through the lord lieutenant in Dublin to procure his release; as a result Brown was able to keep his commission and pay and to receive from the Admiralty a salary of £420 which enabled him to continue supporting his widowed mother in Edinburgh.

Before joining the Investigator Brown studied the Australian and other plants in Banks's collections, and the voyage undoubtedly helped him to develop the powers of acute observation and intense application which gained him the dominant position he held in the scientific world in the first half of the nineteenth century. He made extensive collections during Flinders' coastal surveys, though the major part of his material from the south coast was lost in the wreck of the Porpoise in August 1803. In the summer of 1803-04 he visited the islands of Kent's Group, Port Dalrymple, Port Phillip and the Derwent, where he spent nearly six months visiting Table Mount (Wellington), the lower parts of the Derwent valley and the environs of the Huon estuary. He discovered many plants he thought unknown, though after he returned to England, he found that La Billardière had described most of them in his Novae Hollandiae Plantae Specimen (1804-06). Brown went back to Sydney, collected locally and visited the Hunter River area; there he gained few specimens because of the aggressive behaviour of the Aboriginals. In 1805 he sailed for England in the Investigator despite apprehension about its condition, for it had already been condemned as unseaworthy. On the voyage the constant damp threatened his collections which exceeded 3000 specimens, more than half of which were unknown to science. He had also collected zoological and geological material. He read a monograph on the Proteaceae to the Linnean Society in 1809; but by 1810, when it was published, many of his species had been 'pirated' by Richard Salisbury in the text of Knight's work on that family.

Brown's major work on Australian plants was his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van-Diemen … The first and only part appeared in 1810, but a supplement dealing with additional Proteaceae collected by William Baxter, George Caley, Allan Cunningham and Charles Frazer, was published in 1830. Both were reprinted in 1960, accompanied by an introductory essay by W. T. Stearn. The fame of Brown's Prodromus rests partly on its quality and partly on its support for the 'natural system' of classification of Jussieu as against rigid Linnaean practice; through this Brown helped to revitalize the botanical science of his day. He also contributed an appendix, 'General remarks, geographical and systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis' to Flinders' A Voyage to Terra Australis, 1-2 (London, 1814). Brown's claim to be regarded as the originator of the science of plant geography rests on his analytical treatment of his subject in this paper.

In December 1805 he accepted the post of clerk, librarian and housekeeper to the Linnean Society. In 1810 after the death of Dryander, he became librarian to Banks also and held this post until Banks died in 1820. Under Banks's will he received an annuity, of £200, a lease of the house in Soho Square and a life interest in Banks's magnificent collections, which were then to pass to the trustees of the British Museum; in 1827 Brown reached an agreement with the trustees by which the collections were transferred to the museum in a new department under his personal direction. Brown was offered at least two university chairs, one in Edinburgh which he refused because of his obligations to Banks and his lack of interest in the medical teaching involved, the second at Glasgow, for which he supported the candidacy of William Hooker (1785-1865). He maintained close relations with the Linnean Society which he seems to have assisted financially on several occasions. In 1822 he resigned as clerk and was elected a fellow; from 1823 he was on the council and in 1828 became vice-president. He was president in 1849-53 after which he remained vice-president until his death.

Held in high regard by his contemporaries, Brown was called 'Botanicorum facile princeps' by von Humboldt. He received numerous academic honours and made several major discoveries in his subject, including molecular agitation now called 'Brownian movement'. His link with Australian botany continued all his life, his last work being the appendix to Charles Sturt's Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia … (London, 1849). He kept a close control over the collections; much of his material was never published and the next major work on Australian plants, George Bentham's Flora Australiensis 1-7 (London, 1863-78), was not commenced until after Brown had died. In South Australia, Flinders had given Brown’s name to one of the highest peaks in the southern Flinders Ranges, about 12 miles east of the head of Spencer Gulf at Port Augusta. In the 20th century, Mount Brown  became the major feature of a forest reserve, re-designated in 1993 as a 23 square kilometre (9 square mile) conservation park likewise named for him.

Brown was tall and imposing, active and possessed of a dry wit. His eminent standing made him seem remote and uncommunicative to the younger generation of botanists. He was kind and generous but preferred the society of close friends and was awkward in company. He died in Soho Square on 10 June 1858 and was buried at Turnham Green. His personal collections were acquired by the British Museum in 1876; later duplicates were distributed to institutions in many countries. No complete set is held in Australia but some specimens are in the National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney, and the National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne. In 1866-68 the Royal Society reprinted his works, other than the Prodromus.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 5-7
  • J. Knight, On the Cultivation of the Plants Belonging to the Natural Order of Proteeae (Lond, 1809)
  • J. L. Gray (ed), Letters of Asa Gray, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1893)
  • N. T. Burbidge, An Index to the Microfilm of Robert Brown's Botanical Descriptions (Canberra, 1955)
  • N. B. Kinnear, ‘R. Brown's Zoological Collections on the Investigator’, Linnean Society (London), Proceedings, 1931-32, part 2
  • S. Savage, ‘R. Brown as an Official of the Linnean Society’, Linnean Society (London), Proceedings, 1931-32, part 2
  • R. W. Giblin, ‘R. Brown at Port Dalrymple’, Royal Sociey of Tasmania, Papers, 1946
  • J. H. Willis, ‘Robert Brown's Collectings in Victoria’, Muelleria, vol 1, no 1, Aug 1955, pp 51-54
  • Brown papers (British Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

N. T. Burbidge, 'Brown, Robert (1773–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Brown, by Henry Pickersgill, 1864

Robert Brown, by Henry Pickersgill, 1864

National Library of Australia, 11278663

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1773
Montrose, Forfarshire, Scotland


10 June, 1858 (aged 84)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


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