Botanist and plant-hunter. Born in the parish of Edrom in the Scottish Borders, Fortune began his career in a garden at nearby Kelloe. He went to Edinburgh, working at Moredun before joining the Royal Botanical Garden in 1839. In 1842, he moved south to the Horticultural Society gardens at Chiswick (London). Having shown skill as a botanist, he was send to China to collect plants, arriving in July 1843. Following the Treaty of Nanking, he was able to travel widely and returned to Britain in 1846 with many new species, together with a fascination with tea, the culture that surrounded it and the secrets of its production. Later the same year he was appointed the Curator of Chelsea Botanic Garden, but returned to China in 1848 employed by the East India Company specifically to collect tea plants (Camellia sinensis) and take these to India, which helped to break the Chinese monopoly on tea production. This came shortly after Charles Alexander Bruce's work in establishing Assam tea using the indigenous Indian plants (Camellia assamica). Fortune undertook three further expeditions to the Orient; for the East India Company (1852-56), for the US Government (1858-59) and on his own account (1859-61), visiting China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, where he collected Chrysanthemums, the Philippines and Taiwan. Fortune's seeds were used to establish the US tea industry.
He introduced plants such as Camelia reticulate, Jasmium officinale, Primula japonica, as well as species of Azalea, Rhododendron and Forsythia. Plants named in his honour include Camelia Robert Fortune, Euonymous fortunei, Hosta fortunei, Rhododendron fortunei and the palm Trachycarpus fortunei, together with two roses which he introduced to Britain, Fortune's Double Yellow and Rosa fortuneana.
His publications include: Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (1847), A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (1852) and A Residence Among the Chinese (1857). He also described the making of silk.
He retired in 1862, splitting his time between London, where he was eventually to die, and a farm in East Lothian.