Brisbane was born at Largs in Renfrewshire, Scotland. He was educated in astronomy and mathematics at Edinburgh University. He joined the army in 1784 and had a distinguished career in Flanders, the West Indies, Spain and North America. He served under the Duke of Wellington, and saw action at the Battle of Waterloo. In 1813 he was promoted to Major-General.
In 1821, On the recommendation of Wellington, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales, a post he held until 1825. While Governor he tackled the many problems of a rapidly growing and expanding colony. He worked to improve the land grants system and to reform the currency. He set up the first agricultural training college in New South Wales and was the first patron of the New South Wales Agricultural Society. He conducted experiments in growing Virginian tobacco, Georgian cotton, Brazilian coffee and New Zealand flax in the colony.
In 1823 Brisbane sent Lieutenant John Oxley to find a new site for convicts who were repeat offenders. Oxley discovered a large river flowing into Moreton Bay. A year later, the first convicts arrived at Moreton Bay. Brisbane visited the settlement in 1826. Oxley suggested that both the river and the settlement be named after Brisbane. The convict settlement was declared a town in 1834 and opened to free settlement in 1839.
Brisbane was a keen astronomer throughout his career. He had an observatory built at his ancestral home in 1808. From this observatory he was able to contribute to the advances in navigation which took place over the next hundred years. He took all his instruments to New South Wales with him. In 1822 he established an observatory at Parramatta west of Sydney. This enabled him to publish The Brisbane Catalogue of 7,385 stars of the Southern Hemisphere in 1835. The Observatory was used until 1855.
When Brisbane returned to Scotland he continued his studies and built a further Observatory on his wife's estate near Kelso in the Borders region. He was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and received the Keith Prize from them in 1848. He was elected president in 1833 after the death of Sir Walter Scott, and in the following year acted as president of the British Association. He founded a gold medal for the encouragement of scientific research to be awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Brisbane died at Largs. He is buried in the Brisbane Vault which is in the small graveyard next to Skelmorlie Aisle in Largs. The Brisbane River and the city of Brisbane in Queensland Australia are named after him. The Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium (at Mt Coot-Tha near Brisbane) is also named for him, as is the Brisbane crater on the Moon. The city of Brisbane, California is not named after him.