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Robert Brown

Robert Brown (1773–1858) is described by his biographer, David Mabberley, as ‘Britain’s greatest botanist’ and his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen is referred to by Director of Kew Gardens London Joseph Hooker in his Flora of Tasmania as ‘. . . the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared‘. Though Banks and solander and others had collected and studied Australian plants it is Brown who is generally regarded as the true botanical pioneer of Australia not only for his flora work but also for his insightful work on Australia’s plant geography which was published as an appendix to Flinders’s account of the voyage of HMS Investigator.[7]

Robert Brown

Robert Brown – 1773-1855
Photo taken in 1853 aged 82
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Banks had published little in his lifetime being too busy with his demanding administrative activities and various enterprises while Daniel Solander, though he had worked up a manuscript of the plants collected on the Endeavour expedition with Cook, had not seen this through to publication. Meanwhile plants had been collected by other expeditions, most notably the French expeditions of Baudin and d’Entrecasteux, these being mostly described by French botanist Labillardière. But more and more plants were now arriving in London, sent by Banks’s contacts in the settlement of the Colony of New South Wales.

Daniel Solander had died in 1782, supposedly in the middle of recounting a South Sea adventure to guests at a Banks dinner party. Banks had subsequently employed another of Linnaeus’s students, Jonas Dryander, to act as his librarian and herbarium keeper. Dryander produced a catalogue of Banks’s library and made a major contribution to the second edition of Hortus Kewensis, an inventory of the plants held at Kew, but many of the Australian plants in the herbarium remained undescribed and unpublished. Collections of Australian plants and herbarium specimens were now being distributed across Europe so that plants first collected by Banks and Solander were now being described from later collections. The need for a comprehensive description of Banks’s collections was becoming urgent, the painstaking and time-consuming task of detailed botanical description of these collections fell to his third librarian, Scotsman Robert Brown.

The man

Biographer botanist Nancy Burbidge describes Brown as ‘… tall and imposing, active and possessed of a dry wit. His eminent standing made him seem remote and uncommunicative to the younger generation of botanists. He was kind and generous but preferred the society of close friends and was awkward in company.’

Early work

Robert Brown was born in Montrose, Scotland in 1773, the son of an Episcopalian minister taking an interest in natural history from an early age and moving with his family to Edinburgh in 1789 where he studied medicine at Edinburgh University but leaving the university in 1793 without completing his degree. In Edinburgh he had spent time indulging his interest in natural history which including rambles in the Highlands with nurseryman George Don and building up his personal herbarium. He learned German at an early age which gave him access to much important botanical literature. A war with France was looming and in 1794 he was commissioned to the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles as as an Ensign (a junior commissioned officer) as Surgeon’s Mate and posted to Northern Ireland. Here, for five years, he seized every opportunity to indulge his interest in natural history and becoming acquainted with the microscope. While in London on recruiting service met Joseph Banks’s librarian Jonas Dryander, a relationship that would lead to his becoming an associate of the Linnean Society in 1798, its librarian in 1806, and eventually a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1811, and Keeper of the Banksian Herbarium at the British Museum in 1827.[16][17]

By 1800 Brown was established in the botanical world, had published botanical papers, had specialised in cryptogams (mosses and liverworts), was using the microscope and was corresponding with a number of eminent British and foreign botanists, including botanists William Withering and William Dickson, James Smith of the Linnean Society and Portuguese botanist José Correia da Serra who had forwarded Brown’s name to Banks for the voyage to Australia. Brown had established his scientific reputation by emphasising the experimental aspects of the study in addition to the descriptive approach of his day, championing a ‘natural’ system of plant classification to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’. Linnaeus had assumed a ‘natural’ system would eventually replace his own artificial but simple and convenient system, while the French botanists had always persisted with their own natural system.

With Flinders in HMS Investigator – 1801-1803

With the competition of the French expedition of Baudin in mind Banks persuaded the Admiralty to undertake a thorough coastal survey of the newly-settled continent and the naturalist Mungo Park (a former school friend of Brown) was selected for the job of naturalist. Banks had supported Park for some time on his travels, first to Sumatra in 1793 and then Africa in 1794 (he died in Nigeria in 1806). Park, however, declined the position and Banks offered the job to Brown who had also shown interest, Brown moving into Soho Square where he could prepare for the expedition by using Banks’s library and herbarium. The scientific compliment on Investigator included botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer, William Westall as landscape painter, Peter Good as gardener, John Allen geologist assistant, and John Crosley astronomer, a strong team but decidedly on the meagre side when compared to the massive French Baudin expedition that was being prepared on the continent.[16] A full account of the expedition, its progress and collection localities is given in Robert Brown’s diaries published by Vallance st al. (2001).

Before setting out for New Holland with Flinders in the Investigator Brown had read all the accounts of the flora and examined the specimens collected by Banks and Solander on the Endeavour, preparing a reference set of about 1000 specimens to take with him on the voyage.[3] Some 30 years after those first collections, those of Robert Brown were to constitute the third major collection of plants from Australian shores and the first recorded collections from the southern coast.

On the outward journey there was collecting at Madeira and the Cape of Good Hope eventually landing in Western Australia to make 500 collections in a three-week stay in Albany, all new to science, and including the fascinating insectivorous Albany Pitcher Plant Cephalotus follicularis.[19] However, Investigator was now showing signs of wear and the team were forced to return to Sydney in 1803.

Matthew Flinders died back in England aged 40 after spending many years in a French prison on Mauritius. His burial site, situated just behind Euston Station, was converted to a public park and with the headstone removed his remains were presumed lost. However, in January 2019 an archaeological excavation ahead of the London-to-Birmingham high-speed rail link located his remains under a lead breastplate that was attached to his coffin.

Return to Sydney in 1803

Back in Sydney Brown collected locally and visited the Hunter River where he was driven back by Aboriginals. In the summer of 1803-1804 collections were made on the islands of Kent Group, Port Dalrymple, Port Phillip (where Brown was the first botanical collector in what is today’s Victoria) and the Derwent. In Tasmania he spent a period of nearly six months during which he explored Table Mount (Wellington), the lower parts of the Derwent valley and the Huon estuary. He was however beaten to publication with plants he thought new to science but which had been previously collected and described by Labillardière in Novae Hollandiae Plantae Specimen (1804-06).[17] Good had been busy all this time too and living plants were established in the gardens of Government House. Though the Investigator had been condemned as unseaworthy he set sail for England in 1805 together with more than 3000 specimens, more than half new to science, and under constant threat from the damp. While working on an inventory of plants grown at Kew, edition two of William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis (1810-1813), Brown had compiled a list of the Australian plants in the ecollections and it included 95 species, including 16 Banksia and 10 Acacia.[20] As a naturalist he had also collected zoological and geological material. In 1809 he read a monograph on the Proteaceae to the Linnean Society but by 1810, when it was published, many of his species had been pirated by Richard Salisbury in the text of Knight’s work on that family.

Collections

Brown spent a total of about three and a half years in Australia collecting 4,788 specimens (729 from WA, 301 SA, 88 Vic, 734 Tas, 1,445 NSW, 869 Qld, 622 NT) including 3,400 to 3,900[4] species, of which more than 2,000 were new to science.[5] It can be assumed that many of these collections attributed to him were actually made by Peter Good.[6]

His personal collections were acquired by the British Museum in 1876; later duplicates were distributed to institutions in many countries. No complete set is held in Australia but some specimens are in the National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney, and the National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne.[17]

Sadly much of the material collected on the south coast was lost when HMS Porpoise foundered in 1803 on a part of the Great Barrier Reef subsequently named Wreck Reef, including Investigator‘s greenhouse which had been set up on the deck containing 48 species including a betelnut palm and a sandalwood tree.[13] Brown himself returned to England in 1805. In Western Australia in 2003 Brown’s name was associated with 1461 taxa, 867 recognised and 223 recognised but transferred to other genera. Many of his descriptions were of plants not collected himself. His Prodromus was a true botanical exploration of relationships as well as a listing of taxa.[10] Brown’s collections were all returned to Banks’s house in Soho Square, London where Brown spent 10 years preparing descriptions for publication.

In 1827 Brown was appointed under-librarian in the British Museum. Banks had died in 1820 and Brown ensured that the extensive library and botanical collection passed to the Museum where it continued to expand including, among others, plants collected by the young Charles Darwin on the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831–1836).

The Prodromus

Brown’s great work on Australian plants was his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van-Diemen … whose publication costs were shouldered by the British Admiralty. The first and only part appeared in 1810 although a supplement was published in 1830: it included additional Proteaceae collected by William Baxter, George Caley (son of a Manchester horse dealer), Allan Cunningham and Charles Frazer. Both were reprinted in 1960, accompanied by an introductory essay by botanical historian William Stearn. The fame of Brown’s Prodromus though clearly an accomplished work is also marked by its movement from the old artificial Linnaean system of classification to the ‘natural system’ used by Frenchman Jussieu, his work helping to revitalize the declining botanical science of his day. In an appendix to Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis, 1-2 (London, 1814) he committed his thoughts on plant geography to paper in his ‘General remarks, geographical and systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis‘ which for some has scholars was of such a high quality that it justified his position as originator of the science of plant geography.[17] Among the Australian genera he named were: Caladenia, Eriachne, Livistona, Isolepis, Conostylis, Pityrodia, Hemigenia, Lechenaultia, Eremophila, Logania, Dryandra, Isopogon, Grevillea, Petrophile, Telopea, Leptomeria, Gastrolobium, Jacksonia, Leucopogon, Prasophyllum, Pterostylis, Patersonia, Ptilotus, Rhagodia, Sclerolaena, Stenopetalum, Thysanotus, and Triodia.[18]

Banksian librarian & Linnean Society

Returning to Britain Brown had accepted in December 1805 the post of clerk, librarian and housekeeper to the Linnean Society and then, following the death of Dryander in 1810 had become librarian to Banks, a position he held until the death of Banks in 1820. Banks willed him an annuity of £200, a lease to the house in Soho Square. Banks’s herbarium and collections were to pass to the trustees of the British Museum and this was achieved as an agreement with the trustees in 1827 when the collections were housed in a new museum department under his personal direction. Brown’s reputation had spread and he was offered at least two university chairs, one in Edinburgh (refused because of his duty to the Banks collection and his disinterest in the medical teaching), the second at Glasgow which passed to William Hooker (1785-1865). His relationship with the Linnean Society remained cordial, resigning as Clerk in 1822, elected Fellow serving on the council in 1823, becoming vice-president in 1828, president from 1849 to 1853-53 after which he remained vice-president until his death in 1858.[17]

Unfinished work

Brown wrote his botanical account of the Australian flora in Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen. Brown had planned two volumes but only one was published in 1810 containing about 2,000 New Holland species, about half the number then known. Unfortunately this did not sell well, only 26 of the print run of 250 being sold.[11] Perhaps by 1817 the interest in natural history was on the wane, the romance of New Holland as a distant unknown land now being replaced in the popular imagination by its perception as a struggling penal colony. Certainly his new natural system of classification was a challenge to the reader, there was no index, the text was in Latin added to which it was expensive, incomplete and without illustrations. Bauer had also published his illustrations at his own expense but these too met with a similar lack of interest. This was a sad ending to what was anticipated by Banks and others as th edefinitive description of Australian plants all illustrated with Bauer’s exquisite watercolours.

Curtailment of Flinders’s coastal survey (Flinders died in 1814) also left coastal charting unfinished and much of this was completed by Phillip Parker King, son of Philip Gidley King the third governor of New South Wales. P.P. King had acquired a cutter, the Mermaid, far superior to the former Lady Nelson. His crew included botanist Allan Cunningham and the Aboriginal Bungaree. Cunningham collected some 350 specimens on this trip,[12] notably on Goulburn Island where he named the adjacent island Sims Island after the ?editor of the British Botanical Magazine that had illustrated Australian flora and the tradition of naming physical features after colleagues and friends continued on the Coburg Peninsula with Cunningham naming Aiton Bay after his former teacher and Head Gardener at Kew, William Aiton. Further collections were made at the Endeavour River.

Like Banks he failed to publish a large proportion of his work, this only dribbling out slowly when published by later researchers, description of his Australian mineral and rock collection not emerging for 180 years.[17]
Brown used Solander’s manuscript (written before scientific publications and requiring sponsorship for publication which was not forthcoming from Banks) and also sometimes his epithets, without attribution.(p.40)

In 1866-68 the Royal Society reprinted his works (except the Prodromus).

Brown died in Soho Square on 10 June 1858 and was buried at the Kensal Green cemetery in London. He is commemorated in the Australia native plant Brunonia and in the names of numerous species and Australian geographic features.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Honours & achievements

Brown had made many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrated more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries. He made detailed studies of protoplasmic streaming, fertilization and pollination, his studies of pollen grains revealing a strange, apparently random and jittery movement of particles suspended in a fluid, a phenomenon named after him as ‘Brownian motion’. In an 1825 paper he noted the fundamental distinction between the exposed seed of coniferous plants (gymnosperm = naked seed), and how in flowering plants seed was contained within the fruit (angiosperm – enclosed seed), then in 1831 he observed the cell nucleus (his term). In 1833 he was awarded one of the eight prestigious foreign memberships of the French Academie des Sciences. His colleagues regarded him as an authority on plant geography and was lauded by von Humboldt as ‘Botanicorum facile princeps‘. He always maintained contact with Australian botany, his last work being the appendix to Charles Sturt’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia.[17] He kept a close control over the collections; much of his material was never published and the next major work on Australian plants, George Bentham’s Flora Australiensis 1-7 (London, 1863-78), was not commenced until after Brown had died.

In true botanical fashion he paid respect to his contemporaries through the use of his new plant names – his librarian predecessor in Banks’s herbarium through the genus Dryandra, French botanical exploration through the genus Lechenaultia, and Captain Phillip Parker King and his father Philip Gidley King, Governor of NSW, through the genus Kingia which he collected in 1801.[1]

It is the scale of Robert Brown’s collections and the descriptive output of Bentham and Mueller that stand out in the early history of Australian botany.[2] He had established his scientific reputation by emphasising the experimental aspects of the study in addition to the descriptive approach of his day, championing a ‘natural’ system of plant classification to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’ (as Linnaeus had predicted, and long after the French) but making many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrating more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries. He made detailed studies of protoplasmic streaming, fertilization and pollination, his studies of pollen grains revealing a strange, apparently random and jittery movement of particles suspended in a fluid, a phenomenon named after him as ‘Brownian motion’. In an 1825 paper he noted the fundamental distinction between the exposed seed of coniferous plants (gymnosperm = naked seed), and how in flowering plants seed was contained within the fruit (angiosperm = enclosed seed), then in 1831 he observed the cell nucleus (his term). In 1833 he was awarded one of the eight prestigious foreign memberships of the French Academie des Sciences. Sadly his later years were clouded by disagreements between the botanical division of the British Museum and Kew Gardens. He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum. Consequently he clashed with the influential Lindley, author of the Gardener’s Chronicle and, since he was seen as usurping, to a degree, the status of Kew as the premier botanical institution, he also lost the support of a former admirer Director Joseph Hooker.[14]

Sadly his later years were clouded by disagreements between the botanical division of the British Museum and Kew Gardens. He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum and working hard at creating a Royal Society with greater emphasis on ‘science’ and less emphasis on ‘gentlemen’. This was all part of the changing times as the religious hold on universities decreased, the professional scientist achieved respectability, and experimental science began to replace the old natural history.[8] Consequently he clashed with the influential John Lindley, author of the Gardener’s Chronicle and, since his activities at the British Museum were perceived as usurping, to a degree, the status of Kew as the premier botanical institution: it was a perception that also lost him the support of a former admirer Director Joseph Hooker whose primary goal was still botanical inventory.[8][9]

Brown’s achievements in Australian botany would not be eclipsed until the arrival of Ferdinand Mueller in the 1850s.

Timeline

1782 – Banks’s herbarium keeper and librarian Daniel Solander dies, replaced by Jonas Dryander who also assists in production of the Kew plant catalogue Index Kewensis
1798 – Associate of the Linnean Society
1801-1805 – Coastal survey of Australia with Flinders in HMS Investigator
1810 – Publishes Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van-Diemen; Jonas Dryander (1748-1810) dies and is succeeded by Brown as Banksian librarian
1811 – Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
1814 – In an appendix to Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis, 1-2 he writes major contribution to the knowledge of plant geography
1820 – Banks dies and Brown inherits the Banksian herbarium
1822 – Elected Fellow of the Linnean Society
1827 – First observation of ‘Brownian motion’; Banksian herbarium transferred to the British Museum where Brown becomes Keeper of the Banksian Herbarium
1833 – Publishes the name ‘cell nucleus’
1837 – Natural History Department of the British Museum is divided into three departments and Brown is appointed the first Keeper of the Botanical Department
1849-1853 – President of the Linnean Society
1876 – Personal collections donated to the British Museum

Key points

  • Major contributions to microscopic botany, not only the consideration of developmental and microscopic characters in demonstrating plant afficities but also astute observation of the nucleus, protoplasmic streaming, fertilization, pollination, and ‘Brownian movement’ of pollen

  • In 1825 published his observation of the ‘naked’ seeds of gymnosperms and enclosed seed of angiosperms, marking a fundamental division of the plant kingdomAn authority on plant geography

  • He championed a ‘natural’ system of plant classification (specifically that of Jussieu) to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’

  • He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum

  • In his day the religious hold on universities decreased, the professional scientist achieved respectability, and experimental science began to replace the old natural history
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