Humboldt, Alexander von,
(1769 - 1859)
Alexander von Humboldt, naturalist and explorer, was born on September 14,
1769 in the city of Berlin. His father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, was a
Prussian army officer who had married his mother, Marie Elisabeth von Hollwege,
in 1766. She was a well-educated, wealthy widow, from a Huguenot family which
had been in Prussia since the 17th century. After Major von Humboldt’s
death in 1779, the mother took sole responsibility for the education of Alexander
and his older brother, Wilhelm. They were educated by private tutors and studied
classics, languages, mathematics, political history and economics. In his early
years, Alexander was not a very good student, but he went on to the universities
of Frankfurt on der Oder and Göttingen (1787 to 1790) and at the latter
school, he acquired his lifelong devotion to the natural sciences. He had previously
studied botany with Karl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), but his experiences at
Göttingen, which was regarded as the foremost university in Germany, greatly
expanded his interests. He worked principally in geology and mineralogy, and then
went to the School of Mines in Freiberg for additional training. After two years at
Freiberg he was given a post in the Prussian Mining Department and served as a
mines supervisor in Upper Franconia from 1792 to 1797. The death of his mother in
1796 gave him financial independence and he left the civil service prepared to
fulfil his dreams of world travel combined with scientific exploration.
During his years in the mining service, Humboldt had not limited himself to
his official duties, but had engaged in studies and experiments in geomagnetism,
physiology, climatology, and astronomy. All of this was in preparation for his
future career; as early as 1794, he had refused a promotion to Berlin because he
had made up his mind to resign and go on an expedition to ‘Russia, Siberia or
elsewhere’. He did not, however, go to Russia. Instead, his first major trip was
to Spanish America with the botanist Aimé Bonpland ( 1773-1858) and it was
an epic scientific voyage which lasted six years, from 1799 to 1804. The two
scientists explored the great territory which would become the states of Venezuela,
Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and, in addition, went to Cuba and Mexico. They
experienced severe hardships and dangers, but they gathered an incredible amount
of information in the natural and social sciences. They recorded data in geology,
botany, zoology, oceanography, and other fields, studied the local customs, languages,
economies, and history, charted the courses of rivers, and altogether gave Europeans
a broad, new picture of South America. Their expedition has been described as
"the scientific discovery of America."
Before returning to Europe, Humboldt visited the United States, where he met
with President Thomas Jefferson and many other Americans with shared interests.
Back in Paris, he was received enthusiastically as one of the great explorers of
the age, and there is no doubt that he was famous in the rest of Europe as well.
From 1807 to 1827, Humboldt lived in Paris where he worked on the publication of
his monumental travel journal and continued with his scientific experiments. In that
city, he found not only the scientific company which he required, but also an active
social life which included his regular attendance at the most important Paris salons.
He was also the benefactor of many promising young students including Justus von
Liebig (1803-1873) and Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).
By 1827, due to the costs of his publications and the expedition itself, as well
as his generosity to needy students, Humboldt’s financial resources were nearly
exhausted and he returned to Berlin. He accepted a post in the King’s court and
resided in Berlin for the remainder of his life but until 1848, he was able to go
back to Paris on a number of diplomatic assignments. In 1829, in the company of the
naturalist Christian Gottfried Ehrenburg and the mineralogist Gustav Rose, he made
a journey of 9,000 miles in Russia and Siberia. In Berlin, Humboldt’s hope was to
stimulate the intellectual life of the city and to create a new generation of
German scientists, but due to the conservatism of the ruling class in Prussia,
his efforts brought only mixed results. His official duties included reporting to
the King on scientific and artistic matters, and he was the negotiator within the
government for the funding of scientific and educational projects. One positive
result of his efforts was the construction of a new observatory for the city.
Humboldt also gave public lectures in science at the university and was the
organizer of a scientific congress in Berlin which became the model for many
future international meetings.
Alexander von Humboldt was an individual of prodigious energy possessed of
an insatiable curiosity about the world of nature. Nowhere is this more clearly
demonstrated than in the enormous volume of his scientific and other publications-a
body of work which was produced from 1790 to 1861. The major books of Humboldt’s
vast bibliography include the great travel journals of thirty-four volumes,
Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800,
1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804 par Al[exandre] de Humboldt et A[imé] Bonpland,
1805-1834; Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1807; Ansichten
der Natur, 1807; Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions
of the New Continent, 7 vols. 1815-1826; Essai politique sur l’Îsle
de Cuba, 2 vols. 1828; Examen critique de l’histoire de la géographie
du Nouveau Continent et des progress de l’astronomie nautique au 15e et 16e
siécles, 3 vols. 1836-1839; Asie Centrale, recherches sur les
chaînes des montagnes et la climatologie comparée, 3 vols. 1843;
Cosmos, a sketch of a physical description of the universe, 5 vols.
In addition to his publications, Humboldt was engaged throughout his life in a
voluminous correspondence-thousands of letters with scientists, publishers and
editors, public figures, and personal friends. His interests extended well beyond
the natural sciences, and he was an advocate of many causes including the abolition
of slavery, constitutional government, freedom of expression, and other elements of
19th century liberalism.
In science, his major achievements were in the earth sciences and ecology; in
the former, he established the basic tenets of modern geography and climatology and
was the first to recognize the relationship between vulcanism and earth structures.
He also made systematic studies of magnetism and was one of the founders of the
International Union for Magnetic Studies, the first co-operative scientific
organization. He analyzed the chemical constitution of the atmosphere, studied the
physical properties of ocean waters, and introduced new techniques in map-making.
His pioneering studies on the relationship between a region’s geography and its
flora and fauna led to the establishment of the science of plant geography.
Humboldt’s other contributions were in anthropology, astronomy, physiology, and
zoology, and he must also be regarded as a major advocate for science itself. In
Cosmos, his intention was to write a popular scientific book which would
give the educated public a picture of the whole of the natural world and would
lead to an expanded appreciation of scientific study. The book was a great success
and was translated into most of the European languages, selling thousands of copies
in a relatively short period. Humboldt died while working on the fifth, and final,
In his own time, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the best known individuals
in the Western world, and he had visitors from all over the world. He often
complained of the burdens of visitors and of his extensive correspondence, saying
that he was only able to do his work at night. As an illustrious citizen of the
world, he was awarded honorary degrees by several universities, and memberships
in a number of learned societies; there are no less than twenty-four geographic
features named for him, including the Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean. After
his death on May 6th, 1859, he was given a state funeral by the Prussian
government, and was buried at the family estate of Tegel, situated north of Berlin.
Robert F. Erickson