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Brown, Robert

Brown, Robert

(b. Montrose, Scotland, 21 December 1773; d. London, England, 10 June 1858)


In the eighteenth century the honorific designation of princeps botanicorum was bestowed by contemporary scholars first, it would seem, upon William Sherard (1659–1728) and later upon Linnaeus. Early in the nineteenth century Alexander von Humboldt referred to Robert Brown as botanicorum facile princeps, a designation both apt and just, for he rose intellectually above both these predecessors; although his works, like theirs, deal primarily with taxonomy and hence nomenclature, they embody many profound observations on morphology, embryology, and plant geography. Brown was the first to investigate the continuous erratic motion (now known as the “Brownian movement”) of minute particles suspended in a fluid. He noted the streaming of protoplasm and recognized the nucleus as an essential part of the living cell. He demonstrated the lack of an ovary around the ovule in Coniferae and similar plants, thus detecting the fundamental distinction between gymnosperms and angiosperms. His extraordinarily minute and critical study of floral and seed structure in a great diversity of plants, during their development as well as in their mature state, greatly improved the classification of plants into families and genera. Through his emphasis on deep-seated characters, as Martius stated in 1859, he “detected similarity when concealed and he separated that which had merely the appearance of likeness; he sympathetically demonstrated the hidden relations between the most diversified forms.” Brown’s influence upon his contemporaries was far-reaching. Moreover, largely through his farsightedness, the department of botany at the British Museum, London, came into existence to provide a national botanical collection available to the public and to grow into an internationally important center of phytotaxonomic research. Thus the reputation that Brown acquired during his lifetime as one of the greatest of botanists has proved well founded.

Brown’s father, the Rev. James Brown, was a Scottish Episcopalian clergyman of strong independent views; the son inherited and retained his intellectual honesty and sturdiness of character, but lost his uncompromising religious faith. After education at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and the University of Edinburgh, where he completed his medical studies, young Brown joined the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles in 1795 as an ensign, with the duties of surgeon’s mate, and accompanied the regiment to Ireland. He was then twenty-one. How he spent his time there during the next five years is evident from such entries as the following in his diary for 13 January 1800:

At breakfast read part of the rules concerning the genders of German nouns in Wendelborn’s grammar. After breakfast transcribed into my botanical common place book part of my notes on Sloane’s Herbarium of Jamaican Ferns. Attended the Hospital from one till three o’clock, saw about 30 outpatients. Dined with Mr. Thor of the Aberdeen Fencibles and remained with him till half past eleven o’clock. Drank about a pint of port in negus. Conversation various… About twelve o’clock finished the transcription of my notes on Sir Hans Sloane’s Ferns. This transcription has not afforded me one new idea on the subject of Filices.

And so these day-to-day records go on: “At breakfast read the rules on the nouns of the first declension in Wendelborn’s German grammar”; “At breakfast endeavoured to commit to memory rules concerning the German numerals”; “After breakfast, the auxiliary German verb Können To be able.”

German nouns, German adjectives, German verbs, the structure of mosses and ferns, the examination of blood under the microscope, medical textbooks—such were the matters to which young Brown industriously gave his time, for his official duties seem to have been light. In these diary entries Brown’s later scientific development is implicit; here is expressed that wandering curiosity and that determination to master a subject detail by detail which led to his eminence. Science later gained a rich reward through his knowledge of German acquired during this period of rigorous self-education; in 1841, for example, he brought C. K. Sprengel’s then little-appreciated Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen (1793) to the attention of Charles Darwin.

In October 1798, apparently while in London on a recruiting mission, Brown was introduced by José Correa da Serra, then in exile from Portugal, to Sir Joseph Banks, whose house at Soho Square, with its rich library and herbarium, was the botanical center not simply of London but of Britain. Significantly, Correa referred to Brown as “a Scotchman, fit to pursue an object with constance and cold mind.” Thus Brown came to the notice of Banks, who had ever an eye for talent, and of Banks’s erudite botanistlibrarian Jonas Dryander; he obviously impressed them both by his zeal and ability.

Accordingly, when in December 1800 plans had matured at the Admiralty for a voyage, commanded by Matthew Flinders, to survey the southern and northern coasts of Australia—or New Holland, as the continent was then called—Banks, whose opinion carried much weight at the Admiralty, offered Brown a recommendation for the post of naturalist aboard Flinders’ ship, the Investigator, at a salary of £420, then a very substantial sum. Brown immediately accepted this attractive offer. He came to London and, until the sailing of the Investigator on 18 July 1801, spent his time studying the specimens, illustrations, and literature about New Holland plants available at Banks’s house. He and Flinders were both twenty-seven years old; the botanical draughtsman, Ferdinand Bauer, was forty-one.

The Investigator stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, a region rich in Proteaceae, to which Brown later gave much attention, then sailed for the south-western corner of Western Australia. Landing there on 8 December 1801, at King George Sound, both Brown and Bauer were challenged by the astonishing floral richness of this region, its plants in their diversity and strangeness far exceeding anything previously seen. Three weeks there yielded some 500 species, almost all of them new to science. No adequate guides for their classification then existed. Brown’s task was to study their structure intimately, to group them into genera and species, and to make detailed descriptions. From Lucky Bay, which yielded 100 more species, the Investigator sailed eastward along the southern coast of Australia, passed through the Bass Strait, and turned northward to Port Jackson, which it reached on 8 May 1802. Here they stayed for twelve weeks. The Investigator now sailed northward along the east coast to Cape York and into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Unfortunately the Investigator had been damp, leaky, and unsound from the start, and Flinders dared not continue his survey. He sailed to Timor for provisions, then returned to Port Jackson, arriving there on 8 June 1803. Fortunately, Brown and Bauer stayed behind when Flinders set out in another ship on his unlucky return voyage to England, which he did not reach until 1810. Brown spent ten months in Tasmania; Bauer went to Norfolk Island. They reached England aboard the repaired Investigator in October 1805, bringing with them specimens of nearly 4,000 species of plants as well as numerous drawings and zoological specimens. There-upon Banks recommended to the Admiralty that Brown prepare for publication “a succinct account” of his plants and that he receive a government salary while so doing, at the same time selecting representative specimens for the public collection (i.e., the British Museum). This task kept Brown busy during the next five years. By 6 January 1810 he had described nearly 2,200 species, over 1,700 of which were new (including 140 new genera), and had selected about 2,800 specimens.

Concurrently with this botanical activity Brown served the Linnean Society of London as “Clerk, Librarian and Housekeeper” from 1806 to 1822. In 1810 Jonas Dryander died, and Banks appointed Brown to succeed him as librarian and curator at Soho Square. He held these posts until Banks’s death on 19 June 1820, when he became his own master, for Banks had bequeathed to “my infatigable and intelligent librarian Robert Brown” an annuity of £200 and the life tenancy of his Soho Square house, with the use and enjoyment of its library and collections; on Brown’s death these were to pass to the trustees of the British Museum. Brown did not wait that long for their transfer into national keeping. In 1827 he bargained with the trustees for their immediate transfer, stating that if the trustees agreed to form an independent botanical department in the British Museum, he would be willing to take charge of it, his own status to be that of an underlibrarian (the title then of the head or keeper of each separate museum department). The trustees accepted this reasonable stipulation, and Brown spent the winter of 1827/1828 moving the Banksian collections from Soho Square to Montague House, the old British Museum, Bloomsbury. Thereby Brown secured, for the first time in Britain, a nationally owned botanical collection available to the public; he remained in charge from 1827 to 1858. As his assistant he had John Joseph Bennett (1801–1876), who had trained as an apothecary and surgeon. Upon this pair fell the whole business of the department; as W. Carruthers said in 1876, “It is hard to realize that this time [1827/1828] and for eight more years all the work of the department, even the merest manual drudgery, had to be performed by Mr. Bennett or Mr. Brown.”

The period from 1806 to 1820 (i.e., from the return of the Investigator to the death of Banks) was that of Brown’s greatest creative endeavor; it was the period during which he worked under Banks’s fatherly eye. After 1828 he published comparatively little. His earlier work relates to the flora of Australia but leads to other matters, linked more by Brown’s methods of investigation—which took him from one problem to another, each receiving detailed methodical treatment—than by any general plan.

On Flinders’ voyage Brown had many opportunities to study, in the living state, members of the family Proteaceae, which is well represented in Australia and South Africa; back in England, Banks, James Edward Smith, and others made their herbaria available to him. George Hibbert’s collection of living plants, skillfully grown by his gardener Joseph Knight, and his herbarium, formed at the Cape of Good Hope by his collector David Niven, were particularly rich in Proteaceae; the same collections also attracted the attention of Richard Anthony Salisbury. On this material Brown based his classic paper “On the Proteaceae of Jussieu,” which was read to the Linnean Society of London on 17 January 1809, Salisbury being present, but not published in the Society’s Transactions (10 , 15–226) until February 1810. It is notable not only for its clear exposition of the morphology of these plants, for its proposal of a new classification into genera based largely on floral details hitherto uninvestigated, for the definition of these genera and of the species, but also for its observations on geographical distribution and, surprisingly introduced, the androecium of Asclepiadaceae. Sharp practice by Salisbury deprived Brown of priority of publication. In August 1809 there appeared Joseph Knight’s book On the Cultivation of the Plants Belonging to the Natural Order of Proteēae [sic], described by Bishop Goodenough in December 1809 as “Salisbury’s surreptitious anticipation of Brown’s paper on the New Holland plants, under the name and disguise of Mr. Hibbert’s gardener!” In it, described under other names, were genera and species known to have been recorded in Brown’s manuscript; the preface acknowledged Salisbury’s participation.

April 1810 saw the publication of Brown’s paper “On the Asclepiadeae,” subsequently issued in Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society (1 [1811], 12–78), in which he separated the family Asclepiadaceae from the Apocynaceae by the character of its pollen, and the first and only volume of his Prodromus florae Novae Hollandiae. His intent was “to include the generic and specific characters of all the plants known to be natives of New Holland.” He himself paid the cost of printing. He gave twenty-four copies to leading botanists and learned societies and hoped, no doubt, to sell the rest of the 250 copies printed; in fact he sold twenty-four. The volume started with a survey of the ferns (Filices) and their allies, then dealt with Gramineae and other monocotyledons, followed by families of dicotyledons—among them Proteaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Apocynaceae, and Asclepiadaceae—covering 464 genera and some 2,000 species. It remains a work of fundamental importance for Australian botany. The two dominant systems of plant classification then were Linnaeus’, based on the number of floral parts and frankly artificial but often convenient, and A. L. de Jussieu’s, based on a wider range of characters and thereby bringing together plants that agreed more closely in the sum of their characters. Brown found neither system satisfactory when dealing with the bewildering variety of Australian plants. In the Prodromus he adopted, contrary to prevailing usage, a modified form of Jussieu’s more natural system, amending the definition of families and genera, adding many new to science, and inserting a multitude of firsthand observations based not simply on Australian plants but also on plants from elsewhere. It immediately won the esteem of eminent contemporary botanists—as one said, “Everything here is new … and every part abounds with observations equally original and useful”—but it did not appeal to the book-buying public. Sadly disappointed by the sale of the first volume, Brown seems to have discontinued work on the second after 1817 and this volume, which would have covered Leguminosae, Myrtaceae, Compositae, and other families, was never published. The loss to science would have been greater had not Brown incorporated some of this material in memoirs, appended to books of travel, that often were based upon fragmentary specimens which, as Martius remarked, could have been made so important and fruitful only by a genius like Brown.

The most important of these memoirs is probably the “General Remarks, Geographical and Systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis,” published in Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814). Here Brown estimated the Australian species known to him at about 4,200 species, with the number of dicotyledons more than three times the number of monocotyledons, and established the families Pittosporaceae, Cunoniaceae, Rhizophoraceae, Celastraceae, Haloragaceae, and Stackhousiaceae. Brown’s observations also found expression in further papers published by the Linnean Society, notably “Observations on the natural family of plants called Compositae” (Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 12 [1818], 76–142), and in contributions to the second edition of Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis (1812), notably on Cruciferae, Leguminosae, Myrtaceae, and Orchidaceae. Of great importance for the development of classification was not so much the precision of Brown’s descriptions as his perception of relationships and his statements of the evidence for them, which led to the concept that certain characters had not so much absolute as relative worth, being constant, and hence valuable, in some groups but varying in others. Prophetically, he noted in 1810, from a consideration of the shape of pollen in Proteaceae and other families, that “it may be consulted with advantage in fixing our notions of the limits of genera.” He introduced other characters, such as aestivation of the flower, into generic descriptions, deriving largely, it would seem, from his interest in ascertaining the early state and the development of organs. The cumulative effect of so many minute observations perspicuously correlated gave Brown’s publications their high authority. Necessarily he left it to others to exploit by further investigation the lines of inquiry he indicated. After the disappointment of the Prodromus he turned from major works of synthesis and made important information available almost in a casual manner, as digressions or appendages to memoirs only remotely connected with it.

Thus, in 1831 Brown published as a pamphlet for private distribution his “Observations on the Organs and Mode of Fecundation in Orchideae and Asclepiadeae” (reprinted in Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 16 [1833], 685–742), which contains his observations that the pollen of orchids, when placed upon the stigma, emits pollen tubes traceable into the ovary. Embedded in this paper is a discovery highly relevant to the cell theory, and thus to the development of cytology. Regarding the leaves of orchids, Brown stated:

In each cell of the epidermis of a great part of this family, especially of those with membranous leaves, a single circular areola, generally somewhat more opake than the membrane of the cell, is observable… only one areola belongs to each cell…. This areola, or nucleus of the cell as perhaps it might be termed, is not confined to the epidermis, being also found not only in the pubescence of the surface particularly when jointed, as in Cypripedium, but in many cases in the parenchyma or internal cells of the tissue…. The nucleus of the cell is not confined to the Orchideae but is equally manifest in many other Monocotyledonous families; and I have even found it, hitherto however in very few cases, in the epidermis of Dicotyledonous plants [“Observations” (1831), 19–21; Transactions (1833), 710–712].

A few earlier botanists evidently had observed the presence of this nucleus in some cells, as Brown himself points out, but he was the first specially to demonstrate its general occurrence in living cells and to give it the name “nucleus.”

Brown’s curiously incidental method of making known an important discovery resulting from long research is exemplified in a paper entitled “Character and Description of Kingia,” appended to P. P. King’s Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (II [London, 1827], 536–563). Here occurs the remark

It would entirely remove the doubts that may exist respecting the point of impregnation, if cases could be produced where the ovarium was either altogether wanting, or so imperfectly formed, that the ovulum itself became directly exposed to the action of the pollen… such, I believe, is the real explanation of the structure of Cycadeae, of Coniferae, of Ephedra, and even of Gnetum [p. 555].

Brown then got rid of objections to this view that the ovule in these plants was not contained within an ovary, but he left it for others to emphasize that it established a fundamental difference between the gymnosperms (as they were later named) and the other flowering plants (i.e., the angiosperms). It remained for Hofmeister’s later investigations to indicate the relevance of gymnospermy and angiospermy to the theory of the alternation of generations.

In the course of these microscopical explorations Brown passed from the study of the ovule to that of pollen grains, and thus came to investigate the phenomenon known as the Brownian movement, i.e., the continuous motion of minute particles suspended in a fluid, which results from their being bombarded by molecules in like continuous motion.

In June 1827, when examining pollen grains of Clarkia pulchella, Brown observed particles suspended in a fluid within the grain which were evidently moving, and he concluded that their motions “arose neither from currents in the fluid nor from its gradual evaporation but belonged to the particle itself.” He thereupon extended his observations, as was his wont, to numerous species belonging to many families of plants, and found such motion in the particles of all fresh pollen. This led him to inquire whether the property continued after the death of the pollen; he then found it even in herbarium specimens preserved for not less than a century. Ultimately, after examining powdered pit coal and glass, numerous rocks, and metals in a finely divided state, Brown stated that such active particles occurred in every mineral he could reduce to a powder sufficiently fine to be suspended in water. He published these results in 1828, in a privately printed pamphlet entitled 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. He took care to point out that the motion of the particles within had earlier been “obscurely seen by Needham, and distinctly by Gleichen,” but to Brown belongs the credit for establishing such motion as a property not simply of living pollen but of all minute particles, inorganic as well as organic, suspended in a fluid. Here again it remained for others to carry Brown’s work much further and to demonstrate its relevance to the kinetic theory of gases.

The last of Brown’s work was contained in Brown and Bennett’s Plante rariores Javanicae, published in four parts (London, 1838, 1840, 1844, 1852). This scholarly book had an unfortunate history. Among the collections that came into Brown’s hands was one made in Java by Thomas Horsfield between 1802 and 1818, comprising 2,196 species, according to Brown’s statement, and thus representing a large part of the flora of a little-known area of great phytogeographical interest. Horsfield evidently hoped for a complete enumeration of his material classified and named by Brown, who, however, merely selected for publication “those subjects which appeared to possess the greatest interest, either on account of their novelty, or of their peculiarity of structure.” Brown’s other activities and his annual eleven-week holidays severely handicapped his participation in this work, and in any event the routine publication of new species had no more interest for him. He liked to let an inquiry lead him from fact to fact until he had obtained a general view and was in a position to write a monograph, for which he then substituted a synopsis or which he condensed into a footnote. The Plantae rariores Javanicae ultimately had only 258 pages and fifty plates, and Brown himself wrote on only thirty of Horsfield’s 2,196 species. It must have been a severe disappointment to Horsfield. This led John Lindley to write that

…it was the misfortune of Dr. Horsfield to place the very important collections of plants which he formed in Java in the early part of this century, in the hands of a gentleman who to an extensive acquaintance with the details of systematical botany adds habits of procrastination, concerning which we shall only say that they are fortunately unparalleled in the annals of natural history…. The fatigue of describing these 50 in the course of 30 years was moreover found to be so excessive that a second editor had to be added to the first, in order that the Herculean labour might be accomplished [Gardener’s Chronicle, 1852 (26 June), 406–407].

Despite this, Brown’s contributions are important for the supplementary observations that he added. Thus, to the description of Loxonia acuminata he appended a long essay on the classification of Gesneriaceae and a synopsis of the genera and species of the Cyrtandreae; under the description of Pterocymbium javanicum he inserted a synopsis of Sterculiaceae.

Brown’s mind became so richly endowed over the years with the details of so much painstaking and critical investigation into the characters of plants, most of it done with the aid of the microscope, that to make them available in a major work of synthesis would have been a task beyond his industry, even had it been congenial to his temperament; instead, he adopted his peculiar, almost haphazard, presentation of isolated parts of his special information, which makes almost all his publications pregnant with unexpected indications of fruitful inquiry. Charles Darwin, who knew Brown well and for many years spent Sunday mornings in discussion with him, stated:

He seemed to me to be chiefly remarkable for the minuteness of his observations and their perfect accuracy. He never propounded to me any large scientific views in biology. His knowledge was extraordinarily great, and much died with him, owing to his excessive fear of never making a mistake. He poured out his knowledge to me in the most unreserved manner, yet was strangely jealous on some points [Autobiography of Charles Darwin, N. Barlow, ed., (London, 1958), p. 103].

Brown never married and had no near relatives. He lived in the house left him by Banks from 1821 until his death; he died in the room that had been Banks’s library. His many excursions abroad made him personally well known, particularly in Germany, where he was much esteemed. According to Martius, “he sat whole nights in his arm-chair, reading and thinking.” Despite his quiet manner and unobtrusive way of life, Brown was by no means a recluse and was, according to Asa Gray, “very fond of gossip at his own fireside,” and, according to W. J. Hooker, “really fond of society and calculated to shine in it; and to my certain knowledge, never so happy as when he is in it.” His somewhat feminine but far from effeminate disposition had none of Lindley’s aggressiveness; contemporaries who knew him well testify to his tenderness and kindness, but the company he liked was essentially that of his peers. He kept remote from controversy and public affairs, had no contact with university students, and went his tranquil way in continuous search of truth, untroubled by economic difficulties and a multiplicity of duties such as beset Lindley. He refused three professorships. Brown never lost interest in the plants of his Scottish homeland and often returned to Montrose; at the age of eighty, in 1853, he ascended Lochnagar, a mountain on which he had botanized just sixty years earlier.

Brown became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1822, and was its president from 1849 to 1853; he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1810. Numerous academies honored him with election to foreign membership. It was to the Munich Academy of Sciences that his friend of many years, Carl von Martius, delivered in 1859 a eulogy that both in the original German and in Henfrey’s translation still provides an excellent general appreciation of Brown’s character and his scientific achievements.


I. Original Works. Robert Brown’s contributions to learned periodicals, travel books (in which they form botanical appendices), and so on are brought together in The Miscellaneous Botanical Works of Robert Brown, J. J. Bennett, ed., 2 vols. (London, 1866–1867); a less complete collection is the earlier Robert Brown’s vermischte botanische Schriften, C. G. Nees von Esenbeck, ed., 5 vols. (Nuremberg, 1825–1834), which includes a reprint, with different pagination, of his Prodromus florae Novae Hollandiae (London, 1810), originally issued in an edition of 250 copies and republished in facsimile, with an introduction by W. T. Stearn, as no. 5 in the series Historiae Naturalis Classica (1960).

His unpublished MSS, notes, diary, and correspondence are at the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington, London.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Brown are N. T. Burbidge, “Robert Brown’s Australian Collecting Localities.” Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, 80 (1956), 229–233; W. Carruthers, “John Joseph Bennett,” in Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 14 (1876), 97–105; J. B. Farmer, “Robert Brown, 1773–1858,” in F. W. Oliver, Makers of British Botany (London, 1912), pp. 108–125; J. D. Hooker, “Eulogium on Robert Brown,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, sess. 1887–1888 (1890), 5–67; C. F. P. von Martius, “Robert Brown, eine akademische Denkrede,” in Flora (Regensburg), 42 (1859), 10–15, 25–31, repr. in Martius, Akademische Denkreden (Leipzig, 1866), pp. 365–381, and in Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 3rd ser., 3 (1859), 321–331, A. Henfrey, trans.; J. Ramsbottom, “Robert Brown, botanicorum facile princeps,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 144 (1932), 17–36; and W. T. Stearn, Three Prefaces on Linnaeus and Robert Brown (Weinherim, 1962).

William T. Stearn

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Robert Brown

Robert Brown

Although Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) was responsible for discovering the nucleus of a cell, he is perhaps best known for his discovery of the random movement of microscopic particles in a surrounding solution, later referred to as "Brownian motion." He also developed alternative plant classification systems.

Robert Brown was born in Montrose, Scotland—the son of an Episcopalian minister. Although he later discarded his religious faith, Brown gained an appreciation for high intellectual standards from his father. He studied at Marischal College in Aberdeen, and completed his medical studies at Edinburgh University in 1795.

Met Future Collaborator

Immediately after graduation, Brown served as an assistant surgeon in the Fifeshire Regiment of Fencibles, an army regiment stationed in Northern Ireland. His journal entries during this period suggest that Brown's military duties did not demand much of his time. Not one to waste time, Brown's intellectual curiosity led him to study the German language. He also continued his botanical pursuits, memorizing the structures of various plants such as ferns and mosses. His knowledge of German later helped Brown recognize a significant scientific work in that language (Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen, by C.K. Sprengel, 1793) and bring it to the attention of peer and fellow scientist, Charles Darwin, in 1841.

During a 1798 military recruiting trip to London, Brown was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks. Banks was a prominent lover of botany who used the resources in his home (which included a large library and plant room) to create a botanical center for enthusiasts in the region. Banks was particularly interested in meeting Brown, who had been highly recommended by a peer, Jose Correa da Serra. Both Banks and his current botanist librarian were impressed with Brown's intellectual tenacity. The meeting between Brown and Banks was fortuitous and would later provide the young Scottish botanist with opportunities that would enhance his career. Brown continued to serve as an army official in London during 1798, but was not forgotten by Banks.

A Notable Expedition

A few years after their original meeting, Banks chose Brown to serve as a naturalist for an expedition by sea (beginning in 1801). The chief purpose of the expedition was to study the flora and fauna of the north and south coasts of Australia. Banks used his influence with the Admiralty (who sponsored the voyage) to secure the position for Brown. In typical fashion, Brown spent much of his time preparing for the expedition by studying what was known about the plants of Australia. Captain Matthew Flinders led the expedition. The team of naturalists made several stops including King George Sound (which proved to host a wealth of previously undiscovered plant species), and Port Jackson. Brown spent ten months in Port Jackson, while the ship returned to Timor for provisions. By the time Brown returned to London in 1805, he had collected over 4,000 samples of plants, supplemental drawings, and specimens for zoological research. Banks convinced the Admiralty to give him a salary for classifying and describing the plant samples that had been collected. The task took Brown an additional five years. Brown's collection included 2,200 species of plants, at least 1,700 new species, and 140 new plant genera.

Publication Proved Disappointing

While Brown catalogued his collection from the expedition, he also served as librarian for the Linnean Society, beginning in 1806. He also served as Banks' librarian, beginning in 1810. During that year, Brown published Prodromus Florae Novae Holandiae et Insulae Van Diemen, a study of Australian flora. The study modified one of the prevailing systems of plant classification (the Jussiaean system) by adding new families and genera and including observations about plants worldwide. Even though the study was well received by peers and botanists, Brown had to pay the costs of publication and was only able to sell 24 of 250 printed copies. This effort appeared to have discouraged him and Brown never completed a companion volume that would have covered other plant families from the expedition. Fortunately, Brown's botanical observations were also recorded in his memoirs, such as his "General Remarks, Geographical and Systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis"; a piece that was published in Flinders' A Voyage to Terra Australis in 1814. Brown's disappointing experience while publishing his study of Australian flora affected the style of his future work. He attempted no further broad syntheses, but instead published his discoveries or thoughts as appendages to other works or as pieces of his memoirs.

A Parting Gift

Banks, who had already provided the botanist with opportunities and resources for advancement, gave Brown one final gift. When he died in 1820, Banks' entire library and all collections were left to Brown. According to the terms of the Banks will, these library collections were to be transferred to the British Museum after Brown's death. However, Brown did not wait until his own death to share the wealth of information that Banks had left. With typical pragmatism, Brown took it upon himself, in 1827, to convince staff at the British Museum to establish a new botanical department, comprised of the Banks collection. They agreed, and Brown ran the botanical department until his death. The collection was notable for being the first nationally owned collection of such material in Britain that was available to the public as a resource.

An Important Discovery

During microscopic research performed in 1827, Brown made his biggest discovery. While observing the sexual organs of plants under the microscope, the scientist found that pollen grains seemed to be darting around in a random manner. Curious, Brown studied other substances under the microscope in search of the same movement. He discovered that if particles were of a certain size (or smaller), that the movement continued to occur. Brown observed the same movement in glass and rock particles, and theorized that the movement was not limited to living matter. The botanist concluded that the movement was caused by some phenomenon of physics and named the phenomenon "Brownian motion." In 1905, Albert Einstein suggested that Brownian motion was the result of the particles colliding with molecules. Nobel Prize winner, Jean Perrin, proved that Einstein's thesis of Brownian motion was correct. Brown's discovery provided the first evidence that proved the existence of atoms. The phenomenon of Brownian motion also led scientists to quantify Avagadro's number—a physical constant for describing random motion.

Brown continued his work in botanical research, focusing especially on work with a microscope. He led the field on research that studied fossils under the microscope, and was particularly interested in studying pollination among the higher plant species. His microscopic research led him to discover the nucleus of the cell (1831), which he observed in plant tissue and which he named. The presentation of this discovery was typical of much of Brown's work-he imbedded this discovery in a pamphlet which focused on the sexual organs of orchids.

A Dedicated Botanist

In his personal life, Brown was known as a witty, yet quiet man who associated mainly with his peers. He never married and lived a home bequeathed to him by Banks until his death. Because of Brown's broad range of knowledge that would have been difficult to synthesize, his published work often suggested questions and possibilities for further research. Darwin, a peer of Brown's remarked on the "minuteness of [Brown's] observations and their perfect accuracy". Darwin claimed that when Brown died, much of his knowledge "died with him, owing to his excessive fear of never making a mistake." Brown appeared to have been untroubled by financial worries during his lifetime, and turned down three professorships. He continued his lifelong passion for botany and hiked to the top of a Scottish mountain (where he had studied plants 60 years earlier) five years before his death. Brown died in London on June 10, 1858.

Further Reading

Collier's Encyclopedia, edited by William D. Halsey, Macmillan, 1990.

Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th edition, 1993.

Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, 1995.

World Who's Who in Science, edited by Allen G. Debus, Marquis Who's Who, 1968.

Economist, October 3, 1992.

Science News, May 4, 1991.

Scientific American, August, 1991. □

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Brown, Robert

Robert Brown



Robert "Buck" Brown was a cartoonist whose work helped define the unique sensibility of Playboy magazine over the course of five decades. With a bright palette of acrylics, a gently subversive wit, and a smattering of erudition, Brown became one of the first African-American visual artists to cross over into the mainstream and attain prominence as a cartoonist.

Buck Brown was born Bobby Brown on February 3, 1936, in Morrison, Tennessee. Brown's parents separated when he was five years old, and he moved with his mother to Chicago's South Side. By his teenage years at Englewood High School, he was already showing an abiding interest in art.

After graduating from high school in 1954, Brown entered the military, serving as a hydraulics specialist in the air force. It was then that he began to express himself in artwork, especially cartooning. His commanding officers were amused by his sly humor and encouraged him to spend his spare time sketching. When he was discharged in 1958, Brown returned to Chicago, taking art classes at Wilson Junior College and working days as a bus driver with the Chicago Transit Authority. After earning a two-year degree, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and completed a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1966.

Brown entered his studies believing that he would eventually find steady employment in the advertising business. However, he was still developing his talent for cartoon humor, and he began submitting work to magazines. At this time, few African-American cartoonists were finding markets for their work. The first comic strips created by black artists to be published in daily newspapers, such as Morrie Turner's Wee Pals and Ted Shearer's Quincy, did not appear until later in the 1960s. Even long after the civil rights era, the majority of cartoons portraying African-American characters and themes were drawn by white artists.

Found Niche at Playboy

However, at the age of twenty-five Brown got his first break and found his most enduring supporter. On a whim, he went to the Chicago office of Playboy magazine and dropped off some sketches. Hugh Hefner, the magazine's flamboyant publisher, appreciated Brown's sophisticated style immediately and purchased several pieces. His first cartoon appeared in the March 1962 issue. His final work for Playboy appeared posthumously in August of 2007. In between, the men's magazine ran nearly six hundred Buck Brown cartoons, bringing the artist a steady income and considerable fame. His work was featured in several book compilations published by Playboy Press, including the solo compilation Playboy's Buck Brown (1981).

Over the years, Brown published cartoons in many other publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony, Esquire, Jet, and the premier American magazine for single-panel cartoons, The New Yorker. It was Playboy, however, with which he was primarily identified, and where his restrained, sardonic humor fit best. Brown was one of a small set of cartoonists, including Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, and Shel Silverstein, whose work contributed greatly to Playboy's hip and libertine mystique from the 1960s onward. Between the nude photographs and the ribald artwork, the magazine projected a singular mind-set and lifestyle, embodied by the freewheeling Hefner.

Like most Playboy cartoonists, Brown submitted plenty of material about sex, but he was not interested in titillation or leering humor. His most memorable character was a dirty old lady who came to be known as Granny. "She was just an older woman my father drew," Brown's daughter, Tracy Hill, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "but every time he would go into the Playboy offices, the receptionist would laugh and say, ‘I love that little granny of yours.’ And the name stuck."

Granny first appeared in the magazine in 1966; subsequently, she was often seen in states of undress in comical situations. "Could you put your clothes on, ma'am?," a stagecoach bandit says in one caption—"You're scaring the horses." Granny's wrinkled, uninhibited exhibitionism served as a foil to the airbrushed image of the Playboy Bunny. In one cartoon included in the book Playboy: 50 Years: The Cartoons, Brown employs Granny to gently taunt his patron. She disrobes before the bed where Hefner sits in his famous smoking jacket with an attractive young woman by his side, and the caption reads, "Awright, Hef, baby, let's see you put this in your pipe and smoke it!" Granny achieved the ultimate Playboy honor in the magazine's September 1980 issue: she was the centerfold.

Painted in the Soul Genre

Brown used acrylic paints in his color cartoons to achieve a distinctive painterly style. The bold use of color gave his work great visual appeal. Many of his cartoons made visual reference to historical periods or parodied well-known works of art or literature. In these pieces, the richness of his drawings was integral to their comic effect, as in his send-up of Michelangelo's famous Creation of Adam fresco from the Sistine Chapel. The caption: "Pull my finger!"

Active during a key period in the civil rights movement, Brown dealt directly with race relations in many of his cartoons. His achievement in these works was to incorporate incisive social commentary while avoiding overt or strident political expression. Using disarming humor, he was able to provoke both thought and laughter from blacks and whites alike. An example of his approach appeared in Playboy's October 1967 issue. Black marchers holding signs that read, "Equal Opportunity," "Open Housing," and "We Shall Overcome, Baby!" show surprise at the enthusiastic reception from their white neighbors, whose banner says, "Welcome Neighbors! We Can Work It Out." One marcher warns another: "It must be a trap!"

Besides his cartoon work, Brown also produced works in the larger format of painted canvas. These paintings also reflected his sense of humor and his flair for playful social commentary; he painted, he said, in the soul genre. Some of his paintings were purchased by celebrities. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Hill described one that was purchased by comedian Bill Cosby: it was "a scene on a beach. Out in the ocean was a big ship. He had all of these Africans coming out to greet the ship, and they were all dressed as basketball players. There was a coach standing there with them."

Brown was known as an unpretentious, easygoing gentleman. He continued to draw cartoons, paint, and exhibit his artwork into his later years and died on July 2, 2007, after suffering a stroke.

At a Glance …

Born Bobby Brown on February 3, 1936, in Morrison, TN; died on July 2, 2007, in Olympia Fields, IL; son of Michael Fate Brown and Doris Lemmings Brown; married Mary Ellen Steverson; children: Robert, Tracy. Education: Wilson Junior College, AA, 1962; University of Illinois, BFA, 1966.

Career: Chicago Transit Authority, bus driver, 1958-63; freelance cartoonist and painter, 1961-2007; work appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony, Esquire, Jet, The New Yorker, Playboy, and other publications.

Memberships: Fat Chance Productions, president and founder; Vice President's Task Force on Youth Motivation, member, 1968-70.



Hefner, Hugh, ed., Playboy: 50 Years: The Cartoons, Chronicle Books, 2004.

Who's Who Among African Americans, 20th ed., Gale, 2007.


Chicago Sun-Times, July 8, 2007.

Chicago Tribune, July 13, 2007.

Ebony, January 1993.

Jet, July 23, 2007, p. 65.

Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2007.


"Buck Brown," Biography Resource Center, (accessed December 27, 2007).

"Cartoonist ‘Buck’ Brown Dies," Maynard Institute, (accessed December 27, 2007).

"Robert ‘Buck’ Brown: 1936-2007," Designboom, (accessed December 27, 2007).

"Robert ‘Buck’ Brown Biography," The History Makers, (accessed December 27, 2007).

—Roger K. Smith

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Brown, Robert

Brown, Robert (1773–1858)A British botanist who contributed greatly to the adoption of a natural system of plant taxonomy, but who is best known for his discovery of Brownian motion (the continuous, random movement of very small (about 1 μm diameter) particles in a fluid that is caused by collisions with molecules of the fluid). He was the first person to distinguish between the angiosperms and gymnosperms, made a particular study of sexual processes in higher plants, originated the microscopical study of fossil plants, and strongly influenced the study of plant geography. In 1800–5 he took part in a botanical survey of the northern coast of Australia and returned to Britain with specimens of nearly 4000 species, many of them unclassified. He was appointed librarian of the Linnean Society of London, where he remained until 1822, and from 1810 was librarian and botanist to Sir Joseph Banks, inheriting the use of his library and collections. These were transferred to the British Museum in 1827, with Brown as keeper, and when the botany department of the Museum was established in 1835, following the acquisition of the Sloane collection, Brown was appointed keeper, a position he held until his death.

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Brown, Robert

Brown, Robert (1773–1858) A British botanist who contributed greatly to the adoption of a natural system of plant taxonomy, but who is best known for his discovery of Brownian motion. He was the first person to distinguish between angiosperm and gymnosperm, made a particular study of sexual processes in higher plants, originated the microscopical study of fossil plants, and strongly influenced the study of plant geography. In 1800–5 he took part in a botanical survey of the northern coast of Australia and returned to Britain with specimens of nearly 4000 species, many of them unclassified. He was appointed librarian of the Linnean Society of London, where he remained until 1822, and from 1810 was librarian and botanist to Sir Joseph Banks, inheriting the use of his library and collections. These were transferred to the British Museum in 1827, with Brown as keeper, and when the botany department of the Museum was established in 1835, following the acquisition of the Sloane collection, Brown was appointed keeper, a position he held until his death.

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Brown, Robert

Robert Brown, 1773–1858, Scottish botanist and botanical explorer. In 1801 he went as a naturalist on one of Matthew Flinders's expeditions to Australia, returning (1805) to England with valuable collections. In his Prodromus florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen (1810) he described Australian flora. A leading botanist of his day, he served as librarian to the Linnaean Society and to Sir Joseph Banks and later as curator at the British Museum. He observed Brownian movement in 1827, discovered the cell nucleus in 1831, and was the first to recognize gymnosperm as a distinct angiosperm. His studies of several plant families and of pollen were also notable.

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Brown, Robert

Brown, Robert (1773–1858) British botanist, born in Scotland. After serving as an army medical officer he met botanist Joseph Banks (1743–1820) in 1798. Three years later Banks recommended him as naturalist on a survey of the Australian coast, during which he collected 4000 plant specimens; it took him five years to classify them. During this work he was the first to distinguish between gymnosperms and angiosperms. In 1827 he discovered Brownian movement.

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