Saturday, 29 July 2017

Remembering Robert Brown (1773-1858)

Robert Brown, 1773-1858
Our chairman Ian Denholm has been corresponding with Miss M.F. Brown of Kingston, Surrey, who is a cousin, four generations removed, of the famous Scottish polymath Robert Brown

Although born 36 years before Charles Darwin, in later life these two illustrious biologists would have overlapped and there are interesting parallels in events that shaped their scientific achievements. After formal training in medicine and a period of military service, Robert was appointed as resident naturalist aboard a ship `The Investigator’ for a voyage circumnavigating Australia.

Partly through having Sir Joseph Banks as a mentor, he focused his attention on plants and at least 2,000 of the species he collected proved to be new to science. Consequently a number of Australian species bear the epithet brownii and he is also recognised through the genus Brunonia (Goodeniaceae) – the Australian blue pincushion flower.

Back from his travels, Robert Brown pioneered many aspects of microscopy and coined the term “nucleus” for one of the most distinctive intracellular organelles. He was the first to describe the behaviour of particles (initially by observing pollen grains) that is now universally known as Brownian motion.

In 1988, Miss Brown wrote an article on Robert in `The Linnean’, and this is now freely accessible through the archives of the Linnean Society. This link takes you to the start of Volume 4 and the piece on Robert Brown starts on page 38. 

Miss Brown also recalls with delight a recent visit to Kew to inspect the original microscopy equipment used by the great man himself (see photo on left)!