Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt

His contemporaries once described Baron Alexander von Humboldt as the “last universal scholar in the field of the natural sciences.” Naturalist, botanist, zoologist, author, cartographer, artist, and sociologist are just a few of the titles that Humboldt earned. His influence resonates throughout the world, but, paradoxically, it is stronger throughout the Americas than in Germany, the country of his birth.

When Baron Alexander von Humboldt visited the United States for three weeks in 1804, just after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had departed to explore the American West, he was the guest of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had a scholarly reputation in Europe, and von Humboldt had achieved a reputation as an explorer, scientist, and cartographer. The two men became close friends. Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of the founder of the Washington Intelligencer newspaper, described one of these visits in her diary.

Mrs. Smith recorded one of Humboldt’s twilight encounters with President Jefferson in 1804 when the President’s aide ushered him into the drawing room without announcing him. Von Humboldt found Thomas Jefferson sitting on the floor in the middle of half a dozen of his grandchildren.

All were so busy playing that for some minutes they did not realize that another person had entered the room. Finally Jefferson stood up, shook hands with his visitor, and said, “You have found me playing the fool, Baron, but I am sure to you I need make no apology.”

Jefferson felt unapologetic enough to romp with his grandchildren in the presence of Humboldt, who like himself, had achieved self-taught proficiency in many scientific fields. Charles Darwin respected him enough to use his journals as a reference during his year-long voyage on the Beagle and described him as “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”

Humboldt’s journey began in Berlin, Prussia, where he was born on September 14, 1769. His father, an army officer, died nine years after his birth, and his mother raised Alexander and his older brother, Wilhelm. She hired tutors to provide early education grounded in languages and mathematics for the two boys.

When he grew older, Alexander studied at the Freiberg Academy of Mines under the noted geologist A. G. Werner, and he also met George Forester, Captain James Cook’s scientific illustrator on his second voyage, and they hiked around Europe. In 1792, when he turned 22, Humboldt took a job as a government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia.

Five years later Alexander’s mother died, and he inherited a substantial estate. In 1798 Alexander left government service and began to plan a travel itinerary with his friend Aimé-Jacques Alexandre Goujoud Bonpland, a French medical doctor and botanist. They went to Madrid, where King Charles II granted them special permission and passports to explore South America.

Between 1799 and 1805 Humboldt and Bonpland explored the coasts of Venezuela, the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, much of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico. Much like their American counterparts Lewis and Clark, they collected plant, animal, and mineral samples, studied electricity and discovered the electric eel, extensively mapped northern South America, climbed mountains, observed astronomical events, and performed many scientific observations.

While he investigated the reasons for the dry interior of Peru, Humboldt discovered a cold ocean current that runs along much of the western coast of South America. It is now known as the Humboldt Current or the Peru Current. Carlos Montufar, a scientist who later became a revolutionary in Ecuador, accompanied the pair on part of their trip.

Humboldt enjoyed many distinctions. He was the first European to witness native South Americans preparing curare arrow poison from a vine and the first person to recognize the need to preserve the cinchona plant, the bark of which contains quinine used to cure malaria.

He was the first person to accurately draw Inca ruins in South America at Canar, Peru, and he also was the first person to discover the importance of guano, dried droppings from fish-eating birds, as an excellent fertilizer.

In 1804 Humboldt went to Paris and chronicled his field studies in 30 volumes. He stayed in France for 23 years and regularly met with other intellectuals. Eventually he depleted his fortunes because of his travels and self-publishing his reports.

In 1827 he returned to Berlin and secured a steady income by becoming adviser to the king of Prussia. From 1827 to 1828 he gave public lectures in Berlin, and his lectures were so popular that he had to find huge halls to hold all of the people.

In the 1830s the czar of Russia invited Humboldt to Russia, and after he explored the country and described some of his discoveries, including permafrost, he recommended that Russia build weather observatories across the country.

Russia built these weather stations in 1835, and Humboldt used the data from them to develop the principle of continentality, the concept that the interiors of continents have more extreme climates because of the lack of the moderating influence from the ocean.

At the age of 60, Humboldt traveled to the Ural Mountains in Siberia and to Central Asia to study the weather. He wrote extensively about his travels and discoveries. One of his books, A Personal Narrative, inspired Darwin. As Humboldt made more scientific discoveries, he decided to write everything known about the Earth.

He titled his work Kosmos and published the first volume in 1845, when he was 76 years old. His work was well written and well received, and the first volume, a general overview of the universe, sold out in two months. His other volumes explored topics including astronomy, Earth, and human interaction.

Humboldt died at age 90 in 1859, and the fifth and final volume of Kosmos was published in 1862, based on his notes. He is buried in Tegel, Germany, and his name is commemorated in a few places in his native country, including in front of the Humboldt University in Berlin and on his grave in Tegel.

Many landmarks in the Americas, including a current, a river, a mountain range, a reservoir, a salt marsh, parks, and many counties and towns are named for Humboldt. On the Moon, Humboldt’s Sea is named in his honor.