Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, Robert (1773-1858)
BROWN, ROBERT (1773–1858), botanist, was born in Montrose on 21 Dec. 1773, his father, the Rev. James Brown, being the episcopalian minister in that town, His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Robert Taylor, who was also a presbyterian pastor. His earliest education was obtained at the Montrose grammar school, where he formed a friendship, which lasted through life, with James Mill. At the age of fourteen Brown was entered at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he obtained a Ramsay bursary in philosophy. In 1789 his father sent him to the university of Edinburgh, whither he had moved from Montrose. The boy's friends destined him for the medical profession. He does not appear to have distinguished himself in either classics or the physical sciences. The tendency of his mind was towards natural history, and at an early age he became a member of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh; while his close attention to botanical science secured him the friendship of the professor, Dr. Walker, under whose directions he diligently made a collection of the Scottish flora. In 1791 he contributed to the Natural History Society his first paper, which was a careful enumeration of such plants as he had collected in Scotland, with observations thereon and explanatory notes. All the specimens and accompanying illustrations were used by Dr. Withering, who was at this time engaged in preparing the second edition of his 'Arrangement of British Plants,' and an intimate friendship thus arose between the two botanists. In 1795 Brown obtained a double commission of ensign and assistant-surgeon in the Fifeshire regiment of fencible infantry, and proceeded to the north of Ireland. In 1798 he was sent to England on recruiting service, and remained several months in London. During this time Brown was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks, his botanical reputation securing him a hearty reception and the free use of Sir Joseph's collections and library. Early in the following year he returned to his regiment in Ireland, but soon accepted an offer from Sir Joseph Banks of the post of naturalist to an expedition then fitting out for a survey of the coast of New Holland.
In the summer of 1801 Brown embarked at Portsmouth, under the command of Captain Flinders. He was absent from England more than four years. In the interval he thoroughly explored the vegetable world on the coasts of New Holland and on the southern portion of Van Diemen's Land. He returned to England in 1805, landing at Liverpool in the month of October with a collection of nearly 4,000 species of dried plants, a great number of which were new to science. During his voyage home he devoted himself to a close examination of the plants which he had collected, and made many new and important observations as to the anatomy and physiology of plants in general.
In 1798 Brown was elected an associate of the Linnean Society, and very soon after his return from the Antipodes the council appointed him their librarian. This position–the free use of the Banksian library and herbarium, and the aid given by Sir Joseph Banks himself—enabled him to work in the light of the most recent botanical discoveries. In 1810 the first volume appeared of his 'Prodromus Floræ Novæ Hollandiæ et insulæ Van-Diemen exhibens characteres plantarum quas annis 1802-5 per oras utriusque insulæ collegit et descripsit Robertus Brown. Londini, 1810.' About the same date Brown published two memoirs–one on the Asclepiadeæ in the 'Transactions of the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh' (1809), and another on the Proteaceæ in the 'Transactions of the Linnean Society' (1810). To the 'Narrative of Captain Flinder's Voyage,' which was published in 1814, Brown appended 'General Remarks, Geographical and Systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis.'
These contributions to botanical science, setting forth in the most instructive form the advantages of the natural system, aided materially in leading to its almost universal adoption. In the 'Transactions of the Linnean Society' will be found a number of memoirs by Brown giving the fullest and most complete development of his views in every division of botanical science. These gave a high character to vegetable physiology, and placed upon the sure basis of exact observation our knowledge of the vital functions of plants.
On the death of Dryander, at the close of 1810, Brown succeeded his friend as librarian to Sir Joseph Banks, and he held that appointment until Sir Joseph's death in 1820; the use and enjoyment of this library and the collections being then bequeathed to him for life, with the house in Soho Square, in which for nearly sixty years Brown pursued his scientific labours. In 1827 Brown, however, acting on the provisions of the will of Sir Joseph Banks, assented to the transference of the books and specimens to the British Museum. He was appointed to the office of the keeper of the botanical collections in that establishment, which position he held until his death.
To 'Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine,' 1826, Brown contributed a remarkable paper on the 'Character and Description of Kingia, a new genus of plants found on the south-west coast of New Holland, with observations on the structure of its unimpregnated ovulum and on the female flowers of Cycadeæ and Coniferæ.' In 1828 we find in the 'Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal' 'A brief Account of Microscopical Observations made in the months of June, July, and August 1827 on the particles contained in the pollen of plants, and on the general existence of active molecules in organic and inorganic bodies.' These were speedily followed by six papers 'On the Organs and Mode of Fecundation in Orchideæ and Asclepiadeæ,' and one on the 'Origin and Mode of Propagation of the Gulf-weed.' These important contributions to science–exhibiting the most patient research and refined deductions from his minute observations–were highly appreciated by all naturalists, as was shown by the fact of the illustrious Humboldt dedicating his 'Synopsis Plantarum Orbis Novi' to him in the following words: 'Roberto Brownio, Britanniarum gloriæ atque ornamento, totam botanices scientiam ingenio mirifico complectenti.'
In 1811 Brown became a fellow of the Royal Society, and he was several times elected a member of the council of that body. In 1839 the Copley medal was presented to him 'for his discoveries on the subject of vegetable impregnation,' he having received previously (in 1832) from the university of Oxford the honorary degree of D.C.L. In 1833 he was elected a foreign associate of the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France. Sir Robert Peel granted him a pension on the civil list of 200l. per annum, and the King of Prussia subsequently decorated him with the cross of the highest civil order 'Pour le Mérite.'
Beyond the works already named, Brown frequently contributed to the' Linnean Transactions' and scientific periodicals. His botanical appendices to the 'Voyages and Travels of the most celebrated Navigators and Travellers' should not be forgotten; they were all marked by his distinguishing characteristics, minuteness of detail and comprehensive generalisation.
Especial mention is demanded of his discoveries of the nucleus of the vegetable cell; of the mode of fecundation in several species of plants; of the developments of the pollen and of the ovulum in the Coniferæ and Cycadeæ, and the bearing of these on impregnation in general. The relation of a flower to the axis from which it is derived, and of the parts of a flower to each other, are among the most striking of Brown's structural investigations. It must not be forgotten that fossil botany was also a favourite pursuit of his, and that in its prosecution he formed a valuable collection of fossil woods which he bequeathed to the British Museum.
Brown's character in private life was acknowledged to be peculiarly attractive by all who knew him. This cannot be more satisfactorily shown than by a quotation from a letter written by Dr. Francis Bott on 21 June 1803 to Dr. Sharpey, presenting to the Royal Society a copy to Brown's Prodromus Floræ Novæ Hollandiæ,' which was a personal gift from the author: 'I never presumed to be able to estimate Brown's eminent merits as a man of science; but I knew vaguely their worth. I loved him for his truth, his simple modesty, and, above all, for his more than woman's tenderness. Of all the persons I have known, I have never known his equal in kindliness of nature.' Brown died on 10 June 1858.
[Proceedings of the Royal Society, ix. 527 (1869); Royal Society Catalogue of scientific Papers, vol. i. (1867); Linnean Society's Transactions, vols, x-xii. (1816-20); Ann. Sci. Nat. vols, viii-x. xi. xix. (1826-30) Ray Society; Miscellaneous Botanical Works of Robert Brown, ed. Bennett, 2 vols. 1866-8."]