Thomas Brisbane was born at Brisbane House in Noddsdale, near Largs in Ayrshire, Scotland. He was the son of Sir Thomas Brisbane and Dame Eleanora Brisbane. After becoming educated in astronomy and mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, he joined the British Army’s 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot in 1789. He had an illustrious career serving in Flanders, the West Indies, Spain, and North America and was promoted to Major-General in 1813. He led soldiers during the Peninsula War at the Battle of Vitoria, and the War of 1812 at the Battle of Plattsburgh.
In November 1819, Brisbane married Anna Maria Makdougall and, in 1821, was appointed Governor of New South Wales. As Governor, he followed his interest in science and became the first president of the Philosophical Society of Australia, which would later become the Royal Society of New South Wales. He had been a dedicated astronomer throughout his life, and had an observatory built for him at his home in 1808 from which he made observations that contributed to advances in navigation until the end of the century. Brisbane took his instruments and two astronomical assistants with him to New South Wales and, while waiting for fellow Scot Lachlan Macquarie to finalise his arrangements in the colony, he made various observations. In 1822, Brisbane established an observatory at Parramatta.
Brisbane established the colony’s first agricultural training college and became the first patron of the New South Wales Agricultural Society. During his period in office, he conducted experiments growing tobacco, cotton, coffee, and New Zealand flax (without much success), as well as encouraging agricultural development on government land.
While serving as the colony’s governor, Brisbane attempted to improve its land grant system. Soon after his arrival in New South Wales, he discovered the ease with which grants of land were obtained in the colony. In response, Brisbane introduced the stipulation that for every 100 acres of land granted, the grantee would take one convict labourer off the hands of the government, thus reducing government expenditure on maintaining convicts and ensuring that free settlers made use of the labour already available in the colony.
In the early years of his service to the colony, Brisbane worked to streamline the system whereby convicts were granted tickets of leave and given pardons, despite having little faith in the future of a colony based upon a society of emancipists. In 1823, he sent Lieutenant John Oxely to select an appropriate site for convicts who were repeat offenders. Oxley selected the Moreton Bay area, and convicts began arriving there in 1824. It was later suggested that the settlement and the river running through it should be named after Thomas Brisbane. The convict settlement was declared a town in 1834 and opened to free settlers in 1839.
Brisbane was both devout and open-minded in matters of religion. He supported Wesleyan societies, gave financial aid to Roman Catholics, encouraged Bible and tract societies, but thought Presbyterians wealthy enough to build their own churches and opposed what he believed were their extravagant demands. Attempting to encourage education, Brisbane tried to appoint a director-general of all government schools but the Colonial Office suppressed his plan. He was ambivalent towards Indigenous Australians. While he sometimes supported harsh disciplinary measures against them, Brisbane favoured compensating Aboriginal Australians for lost land.
Brisbane had left Sydney and returned to Scotland by December 1825. In 1826 he added the name ‘Makdougall’ before Brisbane, and in his retirement he followed his interest in science, his estate, and his regiment. In 1828, Sir John Herschel presented Brisbane with the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Subsequently, Oxford and Cambridge Universities gave him the honorary degree of DCL, and he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Societies of both London and Edinburgh. In 1832, he was elected president of the Royal Society of Scotland, succeeding Sir Walter Scott. In 1835, Brisbane published ‘The Brisbane Catalogue’, which featured 7385 stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Back in New South Wales, the observatory at Parramatta was in use until 1855. Brisbane received the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Keith Prize in 1848.
Brisbane died on 27 January 1860 in Largs. He is buried in the Brisbane Aisle Vault, which is in a small kirkyyrd near Skelmorlie Aisle at the Largs Old Kirk. His legacy continues to this day. The Brisbane River and the city of Brisbane bear his name, as does that city’s Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. In Canberra, the suburb of Isabella Plains is named after his daughter, Isabella Brisbane. Noddsdale, where he was born, was renamed Brisbane Glen, and there is also the Brisbane House Hotel and the Thomas Makdouggall Brisbane bridge in Largs, North Ayrshire. His name is also found at Brisbane Street, Greenock, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh established Makdougall Brisbane prize in his name. Finally, Brisbane has the unique honour – one apt for a keen and successful astronomer on frontiers of colonial civilisation – of having a crater named after him on the Moon.