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The Scottish Nation

BROWN, ROBERT, D.C.L., an eminent botanist, the son of an Episcopalian clergyman, was born at Montrose, 21st of December 1773. His academical education was acquired first at Marischal college, Aberdeen, and subsequently at the university of Edinburgh, where he completed his medical studies in 1795, and in the same year accompanied a Scottish fencible regiment, in the double capacity of ensign and assistant-surgeon, to Ireland. His intense love and peculiar aptitude for botanical study had already developed itself, and recommended him to the notice of Sir Joseph Banks, who continued through life to be his sincere and ardent friend. On Sir Joseph’s recommendation, and attracted by the more than golden promise which the then unexplored regions of New Holland held out to the botanical inquirer, he threw up his commissions, and in 1801 embarked as naturalist in the expedition under Captain Flinders for the survey of the Australian coasts.

From this expedition he returned to England in 1805, bringing with him nearly 4,000 species of plants, a large proportion of which were entirely new to science, and also an inexhaustible store of new ideas in relation to the characters, distribution, and affinities of the singular vegetation which distinguishes the great continent of Australia from every other botanical region. To work out these ideas, both in relation to the plants of New Holland, and in their comparison with those of other parts of the world, with wonderful sagacity, with the utmost minuteness of detail, and at the same time with the most comprehensive generalization, was the labour of many succeeding years. Shortly after his return he was appointed librarian to the Linnaean Society. His memoirs on ‘Asclepiadeae and Proteacceae’ in the Transactions of the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh, and those of the Linnaean Society, his ‘Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen,’ vol. i. published in 1810, and his ‘General Remarks, Geographical and Systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis,’ attached to the narrative of Capt. Flinders’ Expedition, published in 1814, revealed to the scientific world how great a master in botanical science had arisen in this modest and unassuming inquirer. Nor was the world slow in recognizing his merits. The natural system of Jussieu had hitherto made but little progress in England, or anywhere out of France, but its adoption by one who was instinctively recognized as the first botanist of the age, and the important modifications which he introduced into it, speedily compelled an almost universal assent to its principles, and led to its general substitution in place of the Linnaean method. In numerous memoirs contained in the ‘Transactions’ of Societies, and in the Appendices to the most important books of travels or voyages of discovery, he shed new and unexpected light on many of the most difficult problems in the reproduction, the anatomy, the distribution, the characters, and the affinities of plants; and the universal consent of botanists recognized the title conferred upon him by his illustrious friend Alexander von Humboldt, of ‘Botanicorum facile Princeps.’ Nearly every scientific society, both at home and abroad, considered itself honoured by the enrolment of his name in the list of its members.

After the death of Dryander in 1810, Mr. Brown received the charge of the noble library and splendid collections of Sir Joseph Banks, who bequeathed to him their enjoyment for life. In 1827 they were, with his assent, transferred to the British Museum, when he was appointed keeper of the botanical department in that establishment. In 1811 he became a fellow of the Royal Society, and was several times elected on the council of that body. He received also, during the administration of Sir Robert Peel, a pension of two hundred pounds per annum, in recognition of his distinguished merits. In 1833 he was elected one of the eighteen foreign associates of the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France, his competitors being Bessel, Von Buch, Faraday, Herschell, Jacobi, Meckel, Mitsherlich, Oersted, and Plana. In 1839 the council of the Royal Society awarded him the Copley medal, the highest honour at their disposal, “for his discoveries during a series of years on the subject of vegetable impregnation;” and in 1849 he became president of the Linnaean Society, of which he had been for many years librarian. In 1832, the university of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L., in company with Dalton, Faraday, and Brewster; and he received from the king of Prussia the decoration of the highest Prussian civil order, “pour le mérite,” of which order Baron Von Humboldt was chancellor. A collected edition of Brown’s works, in five volumes, has been published in Germany.

Among his contributions to the ‘Transactions’ of the Linnaean Society are papers ‘On the Natural Order of Plants called Proteaceae;’ ‘Observations on the Natural Family of Plants called Compositae,’ (vol. xii.); ‘An Account of a New Genus of Plants called Rafflesia,’ (vol. xiii.) In 1818 he published in a separate form ‘A Brief Account of Microscopical Observations on the Particles contained in the Pollen of Plants, and on the general existence of active Molecules in Organic and Inorganic bodies.’ These movements he was the first to point out, and draw attention to their importance. On the continent it is the custom to allude to this phenomenon as the Brunonian movement.

He is the author also of the Botanical appendix attached to the account of the Voyages of Ross and Parry to the Arctic Regions, of Tuckey’s Expedition to the Congo, and of Oudney, Denham, and Clapperton’s Expeditions in Central Africa. Assisted by Mr. Bennett, he also described the rare plants collected by Dr. Husfield, during his residence in Java.

In private life, this distinguished ornament of science was remarkable for the unvarying simplicity, truthfulness, and benevolence of his character, and the singular uprightness of his judgment rendered him on all difficult occasions an invaluable counsellor to those who had the privilege of seeking his advice. With his faculties unclouded to the last, he died at London, 10th June 1858, surrounded by his collections, in the room which had formerly been the library of Sri Joseph Banks. “It was in the year 1810,” says one of his distinguished friends, who contributed greatly to relieve the sufferings of his last illness, “that I first became acquainted with Mr. Brown, within three feet of the same place in the same room where I saw him so nearly drawing his last breath three days ago. He was the same simple-minded, kind-hearted man in November, 1810, as he was in June 1858, nothing changed but as time changes us all.” His funeral took place on the 15th, at the cemetery, Kensal-green, to which it was attended by a numerous concourse of his scientific and personal friends.

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