Robert Brown

When it comes to the field of botany and palaeobotany, Robert Brown is a man who has made numerous important contributions because of how he had used the microscope in his studies. The Brownian motion is named after him, and some of his more famous scientific contributions to botany include providing one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the nucleus as well as details about cytoplasmic streaming. Some of the first studies in palynology were done by Brown, and he also was the first to recognise the differences between angiosperms and gymnosperms. Apart from those, he had also contributed to plant taxonomy where his discoveries are still credited in the plant families known today.


Early Life and Educational Background

Born on the 21st of December in 1773, Robert Brown was the son of an Episcopalian reverend named James Brown and Helen nee Taylor. Helen was a Presbyterian minister’s daughter. Robert Brown’s hometown was in Montrose and he had attended their local Grammar School which is now known as the Montrose Academy. He then attended the Marischal College in Aberdeen and was a Ramsay scholar but had to withdraw in his fourth year because his family had to move to Edinburgh.

In the University of Edinburgh, he studied medicine but developed a keener interest for botany. While he did not take a degree, he had shown an interest for natural history. In 1791 a year after they moved, his father died. During his time in the university, he was able to attend lectures held by John Walker who was a respected natural historian and he had also begun having correspondences with William Witheron who was one of the leading botanists back in those days. During this time, Robert Brown was able to discover Alopecurus alpinus, a new species of grass and he was able to finish his first botanical paper called “The Botanical History of Angus.”

Robert Brown and his Passion for Botany

In 1793, he dropped out of his courses in medicine and around a year later, he had been commissioned as a part of the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles where he was a surgeon’s mate. The regiment assigned to them in New Ireland was with little action though, and because he had a lot of time to spare, he had spent his time on pursuits related to botany.

His life in the military had not suited him and prevented him from getting access to libraries and from being able to begin his own collection of plant specimen. In 1798 and through Jonas Dryander, the librarian of Sir Joseph Banks who he met in London during recruitment, Robert Brown was able to become one of the associates of the Linnean Society. This then became his chance to be part of naturalist expeditions. Sir Joseph Banks had quite a time convincing the lord lieutenant of Dublin to release Brown, but in the end was able to. Brown was still able to receive his pay and commission which he had been using to support his widowed mother who was in Edinburgh.

His being accepted as a naturalist opened doors for him to explore and pursue his love for botany. He had made preparations for his trip to Australia by studying the plant specimen that Sir Joseph Banks had previously collected from the area. He was instructed to collect different scientific specimens but the main priority was to collect insects, plants as well as birds. He had been on the journey of collecting specimen with Ferdinand Bauer who was a botanical illustrator and a gardener named Peter Good who had helped him come up with his collection.

In December of 1801, Robert Brown and the Investigator arrived in what was then called as King George Sound which is currently Western Australia. During his time in Australia, Brown was able to collect around 3400 species—2000 of which were previously not known. Constant dampness during the expedition had threatened Brown’s collection, and a huge part of this collection had been lost though, when on their way back to England, the ship called Porpoise carrying most of the specimens got wrecked. After collecting the specimen, he went back to Britain in the year 1805 and had spent a good five years working on the specimens he had gathered during the expedition.

Works and Legacy

From the expedition Brown had been in, the major work he was able to publish about the Australian plant specimens was called the Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van-Diemen which appeared in 1810. This work had gained popularity because of its quality as well as its support for Jussieu “natural system” style of classification instead of the more rigid Linnean classification system.

Brown had a publication called “Observations, systematical and geographical, on the herbarium collected by Professor Christian Smith, in the vicinity of the Congo” in the year 1818, and around four years later, he was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society.

In 1827, the Brownian motion came to life when Brown observed that small particles ejected from pollen grains executed a kind of continuous and jittery movement. He was able to observe the same thing happening to inorganic matter and although no theory was provided as to why these particles moved this way, this phenomenon has been and is still called as the Brownian motion.

He had read a paper to the Linnean Society in 1831 which was published in 1833 where he had named the nucleus of cells. While this part of the cell had been observed by Leeuwenhoek back in 1682, it was Brown who had named it the “cell nucleus” and gave credit to Franz Bauer’s drawings and observation of this regular feature in plant cells.

From the year 1849 to 1853 he was the president of the Linnean Society. Robert Brown had been the first Keeper of the Botanical Department for the Natural History Department of the British Museum. He was able to hold this position until his death on the 10th of June in 1858. As one of his legacies in botany, his name is credited in the Australian her genus called Brunonia and other Australian species he had discovered during his stay there.