Childhood & Early Life
Robert Brown was born to James Brown and his wife Helen on December 21, 1773, in Montrose, a coastal town in Scotland. James was an important member of the ‘Scottish Episcopal Church’, while his wife was the daughter of a priest.
The young boy was initially schooled at what is now known as the ‘Montrose Academy’. Upon completion of his primary education, he was enrolled at Aberdeen's 'Marischal College'. However he was forced to drop out when they decided to settle down in Edinburgh.
After his father's death, Robert joined the ‘University of Edinburgh’with the intention of becoming a doctor. However, his interests soon shifted to botany, and it seemed that the young man had finally found his calling.
As a botany enthusiast, it was the teachings and works of William Withering, John Walker, and George Don, that influenced him the most. Brown went on to discover the ‘Alopecurusalpinus’, a type of grass. Also, his first thesis, 'The botanical history of Angus', which was printed posthumously, became a favourite with the 'Edinburgh Natural History Society'.
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After quitting medical school, Robert started serving at the ‘Fifeshire Fencibles’ regiment in 1974. A year later, he was hired by the Royal Navy as assistant to the head surgeon in Ireland. Since his new job allowed him a lot of free time, the budding botanist ensured he employed it to increase his knowledge of plants.
Soon he decided to conduct an extensive study on mosses and other similar cryptogams, in collaboration with fellow botanist James Dickson. Robert's research was so remarkable that Dickson decided to publish the former's findings in his book 'Fasciculi Plantarum Cryptogamicarum Britanniae'.
Within the year 1800, Brown's efforts had paid off, and he was starting to gain recognition in Ireland as a botanist. He was considered as a major contender to the likes of José Correia da Serra, Withering, and James Dickson.
He had also been recommended for a membership to the prestigious ‘Linnean Society of London’, which specialized in the study of natural history. As a special recognition, botanist Lewis Weston Dillwyn named the ‘Conferva Brownii’, a type of algae, after Robert.
The same year, he was invited by English botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, to be a part of an expedition to New Holland (what we know as Australia in present times), as a replacement for explorer, Mungo Park. Since this had been his dream since two years, a post that he had initially been rejected for, Brown readily took up the offer.
In 1801, the expedition started, and the popular botanist was assigned the responsibility of gathering samples of flora and fauna in Australia. This work interested him and he continued it for almost four years, adding almost 3400 species of plants and animals to his repertoire.
Upon moving to Britain in mid-1805, the exceptional botanist further studied the samples he had brought back. He also published several research papers on the species he had examined, which included specimens like Lechenaultia, Sclerolaena, and Triodia, amongst others.
From 1809-10, Brown produced several theses publications based on his botanical investigations. 'On the natural order of plants called Proteaceae' (printed as 'On the Proteaceae of Jussieu') and 'Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen' were the most famous.
In 1810 Robert was appointed by Sir Joseph Banks as his librarian, and within the next ten years, the library was transferred to his custody after his mentor's death.
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From 1822-27, the botanist served in various capacities at esteemed establishments like the 'Linnean Society', 'Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences', and the ‘Royal Institute of the Netherlands'. The British Museum received the rights to Banks' library at the end of this period and hired Brown as the Keeper of the 'Banksian Botanical Collection'.
In 1827, while conducting an experiment on a plant named Clarkia pulchella, he closely studied the movement of particles in pollen grains. This helped him discover what is now known as the ‘Brownian Motion’.
The 'British Museum's 'Natural History Department' was separated into three branches in the year 1837, of which the 'Botany Department' saw Brown become its first supervisor.
In 1849, the 'Linnean Society' appointed this great botanist as their President, and he remained so for the next four years.
Personal Life & Legacy
On June 10, 1858, the world saw the last of this exceptional botanist, when he passed away in Soho Square. He was interred in London's 'Kensal Green Cemetery'.
Many plant species have been named after this brilliant botanist, including Brunonia, Tetrodontium brownianum, and Eucalyptus brownii.
This Scottish botanist is the eponym of the Brown River in Tasmania, Mount Brown in Canada, and Point Brown in South Australia.
British nurseryman, Richard Anthony Salisbury, was accused of plagiarism by this famous Scottish botanist, after he had attempted to memorise a reading of the latter's paper, 'On the natural order of plants called Proteaceae'. Salisbury had collaborated with fellow plant cultivator, Joseph Knight, to publish the paper 'On the cultivation of the plants belonging to the natural order of Proteeae', most of which was an appropriation.
The diminutive R. Br. is employed by researchers to cite this famous botanist from Scotland.