Journal of botany, British and foreign/Volume 34/The Robert Brown memorial

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


On Friday, the 18th October, a memorial bust of Robert Brown was unveiled at Montrose, his native town, by his kinswoman Miss Hope Paton, at whose order it had been executed by Mr. Stevenson, R.S.A., of Edinburgh. Invitations had been sent to representative

Robert Brown memorial.png

botanists, especially those representing institutions with which Robert Brown had been connected. Among those who attended were Mr. Carruthers, Mr. George Murray, Prof. Balfour, Prof. Trail, Prof. Bower, Prof. Geddes, Prof. D'Arcy Thompson, besides a large gathering of local naturalists. Letters of apology for absence from Sir Joseph Hooker and Dr. King, of Calcutta, were read by the Town Clerk at the meeting which followed the ceremony of unveiling. The bust, of which we give a representation, is placed in a niche in the outside wall of the house in which Robert Brown was born, and the Town Council has undertaken that, in the event of this house being pulled down in the course of municipal improvements, the bust will find a place in the wall of the new Town Hall which it is proposed to erect on the spot. After the formal unveiling and a brief speech by Mr. Jamieson Paton handing over the bust to the town, and another from the Provost accepting its custody, a meeting was held in the Municipal Chambers, the Provost and Council entertaining the company to a cake and wine banquet. At this meeting Mr. Carruthers was the principal speaker, and we are able to give the following extracts from his speech:—

I owe the pleasure of being present and the honour of saying something on the life and work of Robert Brown to the fact that for a quarter of a century I have occupied Mr. Brown's chair in the Botanical Department of the British Museum, and perhaps also because, like Mr. Brown, I have filled the honourable office of President of the Linnean Society. It is 122 years since Robert Brown was born in the house we have just visited, and where we have seen Mr. Stevenson's admirable bust of the great botanist unveiled by his relative Miss Paton, and presented by her to the town. The inhabitant of the house at that time was the Rev. James Brown, a minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church, whose father, a Forfarshire farmer, lost his life in fighting for Prince Charlie at Culloden. The Scottish Episcopalians were decided Jacobites, but when Cardinal York, the last of the Stuarts, accepted a pension from George III., the Church, interpreting this act as a renunciation of his claim to the British throne, resolved to introduce the name of George III. into their prayers. This gave great offence to many members of the Church. In Edinburgh, one man rose, put on his hat, and walked covered out of the church as a protest against the change. I am somewhat interested in this incident, as the protestor was Charles Smith, my wife's great-grandfather. Those who sympathised with him formed themselves into an independent Episcopal Church, and invited the Rev. James Brown to be their pastor. He accordingly left Montrose, preferring to separate from his Church rather than renounce his "lawful hereditary sovereign." A prelatic church without a bishop being an anomaly, he sought for consecration at the hands of Bishop Rose, who fully sympathised with Mr. Brown and his flock, but did not see it to be his duty to leave the denomination. Accompanied by his two churchwardens (one being Charles Smith) as witnesses, he proceeded to the Bishop's residence at the Bridge of Doune, and was consecrated. I have read the original document, with the attestations of the churchwardens. Bishop Brown prepared a statement in which he maintained the validity of his consecration, and adduced cases in which, in extraordinary circumstances, consecration by a single bishop was accepted as valid. Bishop Brown had no inferior clergy, but was the sole ordained official in this small Episcopal Church. He continued to minister to the flock until his death. He was buried in the Canongate Churchyard, Edinburgh.

I have ventured to narrate this curious and interesting story, as some years ago I saw and read the documents on which it is based, and I fear they no longer exist.

But it is of the Rev. James Brown's distinguished son Robert that I have to speak to you. After three years at Marischal College, Aberdeen, he proceeded to Edinburgh in 1790, and spent four years studying medicine. Under Professors Walker and Hope he made great progress in Botany. He collected plants in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, in the Botanic Garden there, and in other places in Scotland. He began at this time the careful examination and description of the plants he found. Two folio manuscript books are preserved in the Botanical Department of the British Museum containing the diagnoses of numerous plants, which he made when a student: these my friend and colleague, Mr. James Britten, picked up on a second-hand book-stall, and presented to the Museum. Soon after his graduation he was appointed assistant-surgeon and subaltern in the regiment of Fife Fencibles, and was for nearly five years stationed with them in the North of Ireland. There is also in the Botanical Department an interesting diary of part of these years: this tells of his wonderful appetite for scientific literature; the more important memoirs he epitomised. He collected extensively, and continued to describe his plants with great minuteness. Towards the close of his stay in Ireland he paid a visit to London, and made the acquaintance of Sir Joseph Banks, from whom he received much kindness. He had free access to the herbarium and library of Sir Joseph, and spent most of his time in London under Sir Joseph's roof. An expedition was organised to survey the coasts of Australia, under Capt. Flinders. Sir Joseph Banks secured that a botanist should accompany the expedition, and on his nomination Robert Brown was appointed. To assist him he had a famous botanical painter (Ferdinand Bauer), a gardener (Peter Good), and a man-servant. They sailed for Australia in the middle of 1801, and returned to England towards the end of 1805. He brought with him about 4000 species of plants, three-quarters of which were new to science. Brown carefully studied and to some extent described the plants as he collected them, and the small octavo note-books in which these notes were made were carried about with him secured in rough pockets made of sail-cloth, which are still preserved in the Museum. When his plants were dried, he separated a set of small specimens for more careful study, and as opportunity occurred he carefully described them. This work was completed on his voyage to England, so that when he landed in October, 1805, he not only brought an unprecedented number of new plants, but he had arranged them all in systematic order, and fully described them.

A few months after his arrival, Brown was appointed Librarian to the Linnean Society. For some years he devoted himself to the elaboration of his work on Australian plants. In 1810 he published the first volume of his Prodromus Floræ Novæ-Hollandiæ. He followed the Jussieuan method in the classification of the plants, and by his sense of the relative value of the different parts of plants for discriminating the genera and species, the exactness of his descriptions, and his philosophic views of the affinities of plants, he did more than any one else to improve and establish the natural system of plants. He was painfully careful for accuracy in all his work. It was pointed out by a reviewer, who knew more of the language than the substance of the work, that some inaccuracies in the Latinity were to be found in the volume. This led Brown to withdraw the volume after only a very few copies had been sold. He carefully corrected the called-in copies, neatly scraping out and correcting the very trifling errors. Henceforth copies of the Prodromus could be had only as a gift from the author; but in Germany two reprints were issued to meet the foreign demand for the work. The manuscripts of this great work and of the portion never published are preserved in the Library of the Botanical Department of the British Museum. The Prodromus and some of his separate memoirs led Humboldt to bestow on Brown the title, which has been universally accepted, of "Botanicorum facile princeps, Britanniarum gloria et ornamentum."

I cannot, in this place, ask you to listen to a review of the life work of Robert Brown. His published works laid the foundation for subsequent workers. His investigations into the minute anatomy and physiology of the flower, his elaborate expositions of remarkable plants, his scientific bases for the classification of Mosses, Ferns, Grasses, and other groups of plants, and his lucid treatment of the geographical distribution of plants, indicate some of the important directions in which he advanced the science of Botany.

In 1811 Mr. Brown was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Sir Joseph Banks bequeathed his herbarium and library to the British Museum, but reserved to Mr. Brown the free use of both as long as he lived. Mr. Brown, after negotiations with the Trustees, transferred in 1827 the collections to them, and was appointed Keeper. He was President of the Linnean Society from 1849 till 1853; was a Fellow of the principal scientific societies of the world, and had the degree of D.C.L. conferred on him by the University of Oxford.