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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 21 December 2012

On This Day, 21 December; Robert Brown's birthday

Robert Brown was born in 1873, becoming a modest Scottish medical student with a passion for natural history who went on to become one of the great botanists of the early nineteenth century. At age 18 he delivered a paper on Scottish botany to the Edinburgh Natural History Society; it came to the attention of the eminent Sir Joseph Banks in distant London, who with typical generosity gave him access to his library and herbarium. In 1799 he was asked to accompany Matthew Flinders on the Investigator in a scientific expedition to New Holland which was partly prompted by the increasing activities there by major French expeditions.See here for a little more information on the expedition.

They were away from 1801 to 1805, Brown collecting assiduously while Flinders carried out the first detailed mapping of the south coast. He collected some 3,400 plant specimens, more than half of which were new to science. His best specimens were all lost when the Porpoise struck a reef while taking them back to England; Brown simply stayed on and started again. 
Blue Pincushions Brunonia australis, family Goodeniaceae; brunneus is Latin for brown, and his name
appears in this form (as well as brownii) in many Australian plant names.
Back in England he worked for five years on the specimens, becoming librarian to the Linnean Society and eventually president. He succeeded Joseph Dryander as Banks' personal librarian, and in due course inherited Banks' mighty library and herbarium, which he donated to the British Musuem, who appointed him Keeper of its Botanical Collection. His hobby was fossil plants and he donated an important collection of fossil woods to the Museum. He was also a brilliant taxonomer and a paper he read to the Linnean Society in 1809 on the family Proteaceae was remarkable in that 37 of the 38 genera he proposed are still recognised. 
Brown's Triggerplant Stylidium brunonianum, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.
He embraced the new technology of microscopy, and discovered the plant cell nucleus. While studying pollen grains he observed the physical principle which became known as Brownian Motion - even I remember that from long ago high school days!
Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Perth;
in older books this is called Robert Brown's Orchid.
He was also kind, modest and gentle; a close friend described him as having ‘a woman’s gentleness’. He was recognised with very major honours, both from Britain and overseas; Sir Robert Peel got parliament to grant him £200 a year. 

He almost got a lovely bird too; the Northern Rosella was originally named for him, but publication delays meant he missed out.
Northern Rosella Platycercus venustus, Darwin.
He died aged 85, having contributed more to the world than many of us could hope to. Worth remembering, I think.

3 comments:

Susan said...

Thanks for this terrific potted history of a great botanist from a fascinating time. It is largely forgotten, both here in France, and in Australia, that Australia came within a gnat's whisker of being French.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan. This is an interesting one (and I'm organising to leave town in the morning for a few days for Christmas - I'm the family cook, so responsibilities are serious - so won't do it anything like the honour it deserves, for now at least). We certainly don't know nearly enough about that aspect of our history, but I'm not entirely sure that the French had serious imperial designs here (though the British Admiralty certainly believed it). The Louis's and Napoleon all had a genuine interest in science-for-its-own-sake, but the real estate reports on the place were pretty negative. I'd be happy to follow this one further at a slightly later date.

Susan said...

Yes, it is interesting that the Admiralty requested a French passport for Matthew Flinders and it was granted on the grounds that his was a scientific expedition.