Obituary: Professor Robert Brown
Saturday 04 September 1999
His research interests yielded many publications in two major areas. His early work on the general aspects of the growth physiology of marrow and barley seedlings developed into a special interest in the nature of substances produced by the roots of particular seedlings which stimulate the germination of the seeds of the parasites Orobanche and Striga.
Later his researches became centred on the processes of division, expansion and differentiation of higher plant cells, initially in the seedling root and later in the shoot apex. He brought to these studies a critical and analytical approach to plant development at the cellular level which led to his election to the Royal Society in 1956.
His father, Thomas Brown, also worked with plants. He had designed and laid out the palace gardens at Fez for the Sultan of Morocco at the turn of the century, and was employed at the Botanic Garden in Cairo at the time of Robert's birth in 1908; later he became head of the Horticultural section of the Ministry of Agriculture in Egypt. The young Robert was educated at the English School, Cairo, and subsequently at Skinner's School, Tunbridge Wells. From 1925 to 1928 he was an undergraduate at the South Eastern Agricultural College at Wye, graduating with a BSc in Agriculture. During the next four years he was a lecturer at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College, eventually resigning his post to resume his studies in Botany at Imperial College, London.
He graduated with a first class Honours BSc in the summer of 1936 and four years later completed his PhD specialising in plant physiology under the supervision of F.G. Gregory, then Professor of Botany at Imperial. His first university post was as assistant lecturer in Botany at Manchester University and it was here that he was able to continue his overwhelming passion for plant and cell physiology and begin the teaching of undergraduates.
In 1944 he was appointed to a lectureship at Bedford College, London, leaving in 1946 to join the staff of the Botany Department at Leeds University, first as a Senior Lecturer and then as a Reader. In 1952 he spent one year as a visiting professor at Cornell University and on his return became Director of the ARC Cell Physiology Unit at Oxford. In 1958 after a brief stay at the John Innes Research Institute he was appointed to the Edinburgh Regius Chair of Botany. He was the 12th incumbent of the chair, founded in 1676.
His contributions to botany at a national and international level were considerable. Together with J.F. Danielli he initiated the important series of symposia organised by the Society for Experimental Biology and was Botanical Secretary of the SEB from 1946 to 1949. He served on the boards of many research institutes including the Grassland Research Institute, the National Vegetable Research Station, the Scottish Plant Breeding Station and the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute.
Brown was a member of several editorial boards and a director of the Annals of Botany Company. He was a past president of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and of the Botanical section of the British Association. He was a member of the University Science and Technology Board of the SRC from 1965 to 1969 while Chairman of the Biology Committee. He also served on various committees of the Royal Society.
His major achievement within Edinburgh University was undoubtedly the establishment of the present Botany Department as one of the best in the United Kingdom. In 1958 the department was small, poorly equipped, possessed few technicians and, except in plant taxonomy, was relatively unknown outside Edinburgh. Its location at the Royal Botanic Garden also meant that Botany students and staff were isolated from the rest of the university.
By 1965 the department was housed in splendid new premises at King's Buildings, superbly equipped, with many new technical and academic staff and with an established first-class international reputation. After the move to King's Building, Brown strengthened the department in many areas and took it forward into the School of Biology of which it is recognised as a major component.
He retired from Edinburgh University in 1977 and moved south to Blewbury, in Oxfordshire - in part because he was a great walker - where he remained until his death. Throughout his academic career he was supported by his wife Morna, a celebrated writer of crime fiction who published many books under her pen-name Elizabeth Ferrars (E.X. Ferrars in the United States); she predeceased him. Brown retained a keen interest in politics and in gardening; he took many photographs of flowers and had a particular affection for the flora of Australia.
Robert Brown was a complex character who helped many of his colleagues. As one of his senior academic friends once said he could be kind and irascible simultaneously.
Robert Brown, plant physiologist: born Giza, Egypt 29 July 1908; Assistant Lecturer in Botany, Manchester 1940-44; Lecturer in Botany, Bedford College, London 1944-46; Reader in Plant Physiology, Leeds University 1946-52; Professor of Botany, Cornell University 1952-53; Director, Agricultural Research Council Unit of Plant Cell Physiology 1953-58; FRS 1956; Regius Professor of Botany, Edinburgh University 1958-77 (Emeritus); married 1940 Morna Mactaggart (died 1995); died Oxford 13 July 1999.
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