Robert Brown was a Scottish botanist (1773-1858) who accompanied Matthew Flinders on the voyage of the Investigator, sent from England to circumnavigate Australia and collect plants at every convenient location.
Brown first embarked at King George Sound, in Western Australia in 1801 and over four years collected approximately 4000 plant specimens of which 2000 were new to science. He collected along the southern coasts of WA, SA, (Kangaroo Island), King and Flinders Islands in Bass Strait, Port Phillip, Wilson’s Promontory and Tasmania in the south. The northern collection points were along the Queensland coast to Arnhem Land and Gulf of Carpentaria.
Many of the earliest specimens collected were aboard the HMS Porpoise when it was wrecked in 1804 on the Great Barrier Reef on route to England. Fortunately, the sketches of Ferdinand Bauer (the botanical artist on the voyage) and Brown’s diary notes remain for identification.
On his safe return to England in 1806, Brown worked closely with his benefactor, Sir Joseph Banks, to classify the 2000 remaining specimens of Australian flora collected. Brown conducted the first taxonomical order of Banksia in 1810 (to honour Joseph Banks) with 12 species, and then expanded this in 1830 to 23 species.
The Australian genus Brunonia specifically honours Robert Brown. Several species of genera with the epithet ‘brownii’ also distinguish Brown. Of particular interest locally is the ubiquitous Leucophyta brownii (Silver Cushion Bush); a rounded, silvery-grey low shrub, found clinging to cliff faces and dunes. Other unique Australian plants of distinction for Brown are Banksia brownii (feather-leafed banksia from WA), Hakea brownii (Ginko-like thick leaves, WA), Acacia brownii (Heath Wattle, Yarra Valley, Vic) and Bossiaea brownii (Golden Pea Qld).
Australian botany owes a great debt to Robert Brown for his extensive early collections that raised intense interest in Australian flora among English and European scientists in the early 19th Century.
Brown discovered and collected the first specimen of the North Queensland-based Grevillea robusta, the largest species of grevillea (actually a tree growing to 20 metres) in 1803 on his voyage with Matthew Flinders around Australia.