Patterson, Robert (1802–72), naturalist and poet, was born 18 April 1802 in Belfast, eldest son among three sons and a daughter of Robert Patterson, ironmonger, who supplied equipment for linen mills, and his wife Catherine Patterson (neé Clarke), who was from Dublin. He attended Belfast Royal Academy, and from 1814 was one of the first pupils of the Belfast Academical Institution. Robert was apprenticed in 1818 to his father, and took over the business on his father's death in 1831. Even as a boy, he devoted his leisure time to the study of natural history, and during summer holidays investigated the flora and fauna of the countryside and seaside resorts near Belfast. One of his brothers, William (1805–37), had similar interests. Aged only 18, Robert was a founder – with seven others, including James L. Drummond (qv), James MacAdam (qv), and George C. Hyndman (qv) – of the Belfast Natural History Society (BNHPS) in 1821 (from 1842 ‘and Philosophical’ was added to the society's name). Patterson was the society's president for many years; took a leading role in setting up its museum in 1830–31; and over the years gave many lectures, mostly published in its proceedings. Like many contemporaries he was an enthusiast for the study of phrenology, and lectured on the subject in Belfast in 1836.
In 1871 he was presented with an illuminated address by the BNHPS for his work to promote the study of natural history, especially as a subject in education. He was the only recipient of the Society's Templeton medal. Though still engaged in business, he made a reputation as Belfast's most distinguished amateur naturalist, publishing monographs such as Letters on the insects mentioned by Shakespeare (1838). During dredging excursions in Belfast Lough he discovered several forms of marine life new to Britain and Ireland. He was one of the earliest members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and secretary of its natural history section (1839–44). When the Association met in Belfast in 1852, he acted as local treasurer. He corresponded with prominent naturalists, including Charles Darwin.
In 1843 Patterson published in the Zoologist magazine ‘The reptiles mentioned by Shakespeare’. His Zoology for schools (2 vols, 1846, 1848) was followed by First steps in zoology (2 vols, 1849, 1851). A large volume, Zoological diagrams, with colour illustrations, was published in 1853. All his books had a wide circulation, particularly in the national schools, and stimulated the study of zoology. In accordance with the will of his friend William Thompson (qv) (d. 1852), Patterson and J. R. Garrett began to prepare the final volume of Thompson's Natural history of Ireland for publication; Garrett died in 1855 and Patterson completed the volume in 1856. He was elected MRIA in 1856, and FRS in 1859.
Patterson was in the vanguard of a generation of Ulster naturalists who through their work encouraged the study of Irish flora and fauna and the establishment of field clubs and natural history societies. He also took an active part in the public life of Belfast, and in philanthropy; he was a member of the unitarian congregation. He was one of the founders of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and was particularly interested in the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (the Linen Hall Library), in the Botanic Gardens, and in RBAI, his old school. As a Belfast harbour commissioner (1858–70), he brought commercial and environmental insights to decisions concerning port development.
He married (1833) Mary Elizabeth Ferrar (1806–89); she was daughter of a Belfast magistrate, William H. Ferrar, and wrote poetry. Patterson too wrote poetry, as well as hymns. Many of their poems are collected in Verses by Robert and Mary Patterson (1886), and they are represented in Selections from the British poets, published for the use of national schools in 1849. They had five sons and six daughters. His second son Robert Lloyd Patterson (qv) was also a naturalist. Another son was William H. Patterson (qv). His grandson Robert Patterson, editor of the Irish Naturalist, was secretary of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, secretary and president of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club and secretary of the Ulster Fisheries and Biology Association, which he founded. Robert M. Patterson, a grandson, was a prominent businessman and highly regarded amateur artist. Rosamond Praeger (qv) was a granddaughter, and Robert Lloyd Praeger (qv) a grandson. The latter wrote of his grandfather: ‘After seventy-five years I can still see him – a man of middle height, and rather formal manner, pursuing his country rambles on Saturday afternoons in black frock-coat and top hat, and pointing out to us delighted children lady-birds and tree-creepers’ (Praeger, 15). Patterson retired from business in 1865, and died 14 February 1872 at his residence in College Square North, Belfast. He was buried in the city cemetery, where there is a monument to his memory.