- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Robert Brown

Born  1773
Died  1858

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Scottish botanist and plant geographer, born December 21, 1773, Montrose, Angus, Scotland; died June 10, 1858, Soho Square, London, England.

Biography of Robert Brown

Robert Brown was the son of James Brown, a Scottish Episcopalian clergyman. He was educated at the Marischal College, Aberdeen, and studied medicine at Edinburgh University but did not obtain his degree. In 1795, by the age of twenty-one, he joined the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles as Ensign and Surgeon's Mate. While posted in Ireland, he spent much time studying German grammar and botanical documents.

At that time he already knew that his true interest lay not in medicine but in botany. On a visit to London in October, 1798, to recruit for the regiment, Brown met the botanist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), president of the Royal Society. Banks allowed him the free use of his library and collections, and recommended Brown to the Admiralty for the post of naturalist aboard the 334 ton ship the Investigator. The ship was to embark on a surveying voyage along the northern and southern coasts of Australia under the command of Matthew Flinders (1774-1814). Brown ended his army service in 1800, and in July 18, 1801 sailed with the expedition. His salary was £420, at the time a generous sum. On board was also the talented draughtsman Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826) after whom the genus Bauera was named. Robert brown was twenty-seven years old when they left England.

The Investigator reached King George's Sound, Western Australia (then called New Holland), an area of great floral richness and diversity, on December 8, 1801. During the next one and a half year, while the ship circumnavigated Australia, Brown made extensive plant collections. During the first three weeks he ha collected more than 500 species of plants. Later he stayed for three months at Port Jackson, and ten months more on the island of Tasmania.

Returning to England in October 1805 with vast collections of drawings and notes and many zoological specimens, Brown devoted his time to classifying the approximately 3,900 species he had gathered, almost all of which were new to science. For this work, which took him five years, Brown received a government salary.

In 1810 Banks appointed Brown to succeed Jonas Carlsson Dryander (1748-1810) as his librarian and in 1820 bequeathed him a life interest in his extensive botanical collection and library. Brown transferred them to the British Museum in 1827, when he became keeper of its newly formed botanical department. From 1806-1822 Robert Brown served as "Clerk, Librarian and Housekeeper" to the Linnean Society of London, and he took on Banks's home and collections in Soho Square when Sir Joseph died on June 19, 1820.

The work of Robert Brown
Robert Brown is best known for his description of the natural continuous motion that is named for him. In addition, he recognized the fundamental distinction between the conifers and their allies (gymnosperms) and the flowering plants (angiosperms), recognized and named the nucleus as a constant constituent of living cells in most plants, and improved the natural classification of plants by establishing and defining new families and genera.

In 1791 Brown submitted his first paper to the Natural History Society. It was a highly detailed classification of the plants he had collected in Scotland, with accompanying notes and observations.

The results of his Australian trip were partially published in 1810 as his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae . . . , a classic of systematic botany and Brown's major work, in which he laid the foundations for Australian botany while refining the prevailing systems of plant classification. Disappointed by its small sale, however, he published only one volume. Of the 2,200 species he described, 1,700 were previously unknown. Brown himself nominated 140 new genera.

His discovery of the brownian movement was published in a pamphlet in 1828. In it, he recorded that, after having noticed moving particles suspended in the fluid within living pollen grains of Clarkia pulchella, he examined both living and dead pollen grains of many other plants and observed a similar motion in the particles of all fresh pollen. Brown's experiments with organic and inorganic substances, reduced to a fine powder and suspended in water, then revealed such motion to be a general property of matter in that state.

In 1831, while dealing with the fertilization of Orchidaceae and Asclepiadaceae, he noted the existence of a structure within the cells of orchids as well as many other plants that he termed the "nucleus" of the cell. This discovery was reported to the Linnean Society the same year. Brown was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1810 and became a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1822. He was the President of the Linnean Society from 1849 to 1853.

We thank Rags Nair for correcting an error.


  • Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae. 1810.
  • A Brief Account of Microscopical Observations Made in the Months of June, July and August 1827 on the Particles Contained in the Pollen of Plants; and on the General Existence of Active Molecules in Organic and Inorganic Bodies.
    London: Taylor, July 30, 1828. Not published. Like many wealthy scientists of his day, Brown had his results published privately and distributed to friends, colleagues, and the press.
  • Observations on the organs and mode of fecundation in Orchideae and Asclepiadeae.
    Transactions of the Linnean Society, 1829-1832, 16: 685-746.
    Discovery, in 1831, of the cell nucleus.

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