Humboldt, Alexander von

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Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859): German Scientist.

Alexander von Humboldt spent his life in Paris and abroad in lieu of his family’s residence in Tegel outside Berlin. He lost his father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt (1720-1779), as a ten year-old and was raised by his mother, Elisabeth Colomb, a descendent of the Huguenots, who had her sons Alexander and Wilhelm educated by enlightened Berlin figures (J. Campe, Kunth). Alexander studied with his brother at the universities at Frankfurt an der Oder and Göttingen (1787-90) but gleaned most of his knowledge from friendships (C.L. Wildenow, botanist in Berlin) and autodidactic study. Travels aided his education; in 1789 he traveled from Göttingen to Mainz, England, and France, resulting in his first book, Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (1790). In the summer of 1790 he studied treasury science at the Büsch-Akademie in Hamburg and continued studying botany with Wildenow in Berlin the next year. In 1792 he accepted a position in the Prussian mountain department. Promoted to supervisor for Franken, he embarked on a business trip in order to acquaint himself with salt-works in Austria and East Prussia, where he worked on a mining-light, -mask, and founded a miner’s school in Freiburg. He published his “Flora Fribergensis” (1793) and a number of essays about mineralogy, magnetism, physics, meteorology, chemistry, and physiological experiments at this time. After being elected a member of the Holy Roman German Academy of Science in 1793, he traveled to the Rhine and visited Goethe, Johann Wolfgang in Jena in 1794 and upper Italy and Switzerland in 1794.

Alexander von Humboldt made revolutionary strides in the fields of biology, botany, and cultural studies, when he became the famous ‘re-discoverer’ of the New World (recorded in his Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent 1805-34). His mother’s death in 1796 left him an inheritance to finance his explorations and publications. He spent two years doing scientific experiments in Paris, resulting in the book Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfasser (1797), wherein he almost discovered battery power. The next year he met Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, founder of modern geography. Inspired by his friend Georg Forster’s travels with Captain Cook, James, he and Bonpland obtained permission from the Spanish court to travel to South America. They departed from Tenerife in June 1799 on the ship “Pizarro” and returned in 1804. Alexander von Humboldt’s trip to South America included stops in present-day Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and finally in Philadelphia and Monticello as a guest of Jefferson, Thomas. Humboldt’s accomplishments in South America are numerous. He was the first to formally recognize the center of Spain as a ‘plateau’; discovered 3,600 new types of plants (out of 15,000 ones known today); climbed the Chimborazo in Peru (5760 meters high), which was the highest climb at the time; and followed the ruins of Incan culture. In his diaries, Humboldt decries the European colony as an ‘immoral’ institution and expresses disgust over the inhumane treatment of America’s natives.

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt researched at the French Science Academy. He met Bonaparte, Napoleon and befriended Simon Bolivar, with whom he talked about building a Panama Canal, before traveling to visit his brother Wilhelm (ambassador at the Vatican for Prussia) in 1805. Upon returning to Berlin, he advised the king on art and science, acted as his ambassador and travel companion, and undertook a scientific study of Russia. Humboldt’s legacy as a geologist, botanist, and biologist is represented in his greatest and final work, Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, (1845-62).

Further Reading:

Nicolaas A Rupke, Alexander von Humboldt : a metabiography, 2005

Wendy C. Nielson

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