Robert Brown (1773-1858), British botanist, was born on the 21st of December 1773 at Montrose, and was educated at the grammar school of his native town, where he had as contemporaries Joseph Hume and James Mill. In 1787 he entered Marischal College, Aberdeen, but two years afterwards removed to Edinburgh University, where his taste for botany attracted the attention of John Walker (1731-1803), then professor of natural history in the university. In 1795 he obtained a commission in the Forfarshire regiment of Fencible Infantry as "ensign and assistant surgeon," and served in the north of Ireland. In 1798 he made the acquaintance of Sir Joseph Banks, by whom in 1801 he was offered the post of naturalist to the expedition fitted out under Captain Matthew Flinders for the survey of the then almost unknown coasts of Australia. Ferdinand Bauer, afterwards familiarly associated with Brown in his botanical discoveries, was draughtsman; William Westall was landscape painter; and among the midshipmen was one afterwards destined to rise into fame as Sir John Franklin. In 1805 the expedition returned to England, having obtained, among other acquisitions, nearly 4000 species of plants, many of which were new.
Brown was almost immediately appointed librarian of the Linnean Society. In this position, though one of no great emolument, he had abundant opportunities of pursuing his studies; but it was not until 1810 that he published the first volume of his great work, in Latin, the Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen, which did much to further the general adoption of A.L. de Jussieu's natural system of plant classification. Its merits were immediately recognized, and it gave its author an international reputation among botanists. It is rare in its original edition, the author having suppressed it, hurt at the Edinburgh Review having fallen foul of its Latinity. With the exception of a supplement published in 1830, no more of the work appeared. In 1810 Brown became librarian to Sir Joseph Banks, who on his death in 1820 bequeathed to him the use and enjoyment of his library and collections for life. In 1827 an arrangement was made by which these were transferred to the British Museum, with Brown's consent and in accordance with Sir Joseph's will. Brown then became keeper of this new botanical department, an office which he held until his death. Soon after Banks's decease he resigned the librarianship of the Linnean Society, and from 1849 to 1853 he served as its president.
He received many honours. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1811, he received its Copley medal in 1839, for his "discoveries on the subject of vegetable impregnation," and in 1833 he was elected one of the five foreign associates of the Institute of France. Among his other distinctions was membership of the order "pour le Mérite" of Prussia. In the Academia Caesarea Naturae Curiosorum he sat under the cognomen of Ray. He died on the 10th of June 1858, in the house in Soho Square, London, bequeathed to him by Sir Joseph Banks. His works, which embrace not only systematic botany, but also plant anatomy and physiology, are distinguished by their thoroughness and conscientious accuracy, and display powers at once of minute detail and of broad generalization. The continual movements observed by the microscope among minute particles suspended in a liquid were noticed by him in 1827, and hence are known as "Brownian movements."
In 1825-1834 his works up to that date were collected and published in four divisions by Nees von Esenbeck, in German, under the title of Vermischte botanische Schriften (Leipzig and Nuremberg). In 1866 the Ray Society reprinted, under the editorship of his friend and successor in the keepership of the Botanical Department of the British Museum, J.J. Bennet, his complete writings, the Prodromus alone excepted. In these Miscellaneous Works (2 vols., with atlas of plates) the history of his discoveries can be best followed.