was born at Montrose,
Scotland, on 21 December 1773, the second son of the Rev. James Brown,
Episcopalian minister at Montrose, and Helen, daughter of the Rev. Robert
Taylor. He was educated at the Grammar School at Montrose, and in 1787 was
entered at Marischal College, Aberdeen. He obtained a Ramsay bursary but
two years later transferred to Edinburgh university intending to do a
medical course. Having developed an interest in botany he wrote a paper
for the Natural History Society before he was 18. In 1795 he obtained a
commission in a Fifeshire regiment as ensign and assistant-surgeon, and
remained in the army until December 1800, when he received a letter from
Sir Joseph Banks (q.v.) offering him the position of botanist to the
expedition for surveying the coast of New Holland under Captain Matthew
Flinders (q.v.). He resigned his commission and on 18 July 1801 sailed
with Flinders in the Investigator, and accompanied him on all his
voyages until Flinders left for England on the Porpoise in August
1803. Brown remained at Sydney to continue his researches, and paid visits
to Kent's Group in Bass Strait, Port Dalrymple (Launceston), Port Phillip
and Hobart, where he arrived with Colonel Collins (q.v.) in February 1804.
He left for England in June 1805 and arrived at Liverpool on 13 October.
Unfortunately a large number of his best botanical specimens was lost in
the wreck of the Porpoise, but in spite of this he was able to
bring to Europe about 3000 species (H.R. of N.S. W., vol. VI, p. 11
). Soon after his arrival he became librarian to the Linnean Society, and
in 1810 published the first volume of his Prodromus Florae Novae
Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen, which was followed by various other
publications including his General Remarks Geographical and
Systematical on the Botany of Terra Australis, printed as appendix No.
III to Flinders's Voyage to Terra Australis. Towards the end of
1810 he had been appointed librarian to Sir Joseph Banks and in 1811 he
was made a fellow of the Royal Society. Sir Joseph Banks died in 1820 and
left Brown the use of his house, library and collections for the rest of
his life. In 1827 the collections were transferred to the British Museum,
Brown was appointed keeper of the botanical collections there, and held
this office for the remainder of his days. In 1839 he received the Copley
medal from the Royal Society, and in 1849 he was elected president of the
Linnean Society. His name was renowned not only in the scientific
societies of Great Britain but also on the continent as one of the
greatest of botanists. The author of the obituary notice in the
Proceedings of the Royal Society said of his writings: "The pervading
and distinguishing character is to be found in the combination of the
minutest accuracy of detail with the most comprehensive generalization."
He died on 10 June 1858.
Personally Brown was a man
of the finest character. He was very modest, and his apparent reserve only
hid his real kindliness. His simplemindedness, devotion to truth,
excellent judgment and sense of humour, made him a wise councillor and
endeared him to his many friends. Towards the end of his life he was given
a civil list pension Of £200 a year. His Miscellaneous Botanical Works
were collected and published by the Ray Society in three volumes, 1866-8.