Robert Fortune was born in Berwickshire, Scotland on September 16, 1812. He began his working life in a local garden, and his interest and talent in horticulture eventually secured for him a position at the Edinburgh Botanical gardens. By 1842 he had become the Deputy Superintendent of the Horticultural Society's garden at Chiswick in England. Shortly afterwards the Society appointed him their official plant collector in China, and he arrived in Hong Kong on July 6, 1843. Part of his mission was to find and collect tea plants.

This was a time of turmoil for China. The first Opium War had just ended, and as part of the Treaty of Nanking, England gained right of access to China's interior. Despite this right, central China was still off limits to foreigners, but Fortune was able to make several excursions to the Northern provinces.

Fortune remained in China for 3 years and was able to send many plant specimens back to England. He became proficient in Mandarin and adopted the local dress, shaving his head and growing a ponytail, thus blending in so well he was able to travel unchallenged.

Fortune returned to England in May of 1846. At this time, China had a monopoly on tea, and Western countries (in particular England) were looking for ways to break this monopoly.

In 1853 Fortune was commissioned by the East India Company to return to China to collect fine tea specimens and learn the art of processing tea. The tea plants were to be shipped to the Himalayas in the hope of establishing a tea industry in India.

He again disguised himself as a Chinaman and gained access to the tea regions of China. During the three years of this expedition he shipped more than 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to India, thus establishing the Indian and Sri Lankan tea industries.

In 1856 Fortune traveled from China to India accompanied with 8 Chinese tea workers who were to supervise the new tea production facilities. He stayed in India for several months and returned to England in early 1857.

Fortune undertook two more expeditions to the Orient. The first of these (1858-59) was on behalf of the United States government with the aim of finding tea plants that could be grown in the southern states. The second was a trip to Japan and China from 1860 to 1862.

Fortune published four books about his travels. On his return to England, he retired and lived comfortably off the proceeds of his writings.