Alexander von Humboldt

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By EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD

Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Prussian naturalist, scientific explorer, polyglot, and polymath. The last great scientific generalist, von Humboldt made important contributions to nearly every branch of the natural sciences. Indeed, he believed that no organism or phenomenon could be fully understood in isolation. Living things, the objects of biological study, had to be considered in conjunction with data from other fields of research such as meteorology and geology. His object was to measure every aspect of nature, and he did so with the finest instruments then available.


Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 (the same birth year as Georges Cuvier and William Smith). He was raised by his mother after the age of nine (his father, a Prussian military officer, died in 1779). During his early years, Alexander was tutored at home together with his brother Wilhelm. He went on to study at the Freiberg Academy of Mines under the famous geologist A. G. Werner.

After graduation, he worked for a time as a mine inspector. But when his mother died, and he became financially independent, he decided to leave government service. Together with botanist Aimé Bonpland, he began planning an expedition to Latin America, a region then poorly known to European science. The two traveled to Madrid, obtained permission for their journey, and set out. The year was 1799.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland
Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland
(Enlarged Image)
Alexander von Humboldt at Mt. Chimborazo
Alexander von Humboldt at Chimborazo. Bonpland and Humboldt attempted the ascent of Chimborazo, then said to be the tallest mountain on earth. They reached 18,000 ft (5,500 m) before a sheer cliff blocked further passage. (click to enlarge)

The story of their journey is told in the famous Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. In the Narrative, von Humboldt and Bonpland report on their travels throughout much of Central and South America, where they scaled the heights of the Andes and penetrated the unknown depths of the rain forests.

Picture of two Amazon River Dolphins
Amazon River Dolphin

They recorded information on geology, geography, botany, archeology, zoology, oceanography, and other fields of natural science. Many organisms first entered the scientific literature in their reports, for example, the Humboldt Squid. For others, they extended the known geographic range by finding them in previously unknown locations. For example, they discovered the Amazon River Dolphin (right) in the Orinoco River at a time when it was still thought only to be present in the Amazon.

Von Humboldt also studied the customs, politics, languages, and economies, of the countries they visited. As José de la Luz y Caballero put it, "Columbus gave Europe a New World; Humboldt made it known in its physical, material, intellectual, and moral aspects." His writings would spark the dreams of future generations of scientists. Late in life, Charles Darwin said von Humboldt and Bonpland's Narrative had been the primary inspiration for his own decision to ship on board the Beagle and sail around the world.

Humboldt<br>Penguin face
Humboldt Penguin
(click to enlarge)

Von Humboldt had incredible mental and physical energies. At the age of 59 he completed a 9,000-mile exploratory trek across much of Russia. Six years later, when he was 65 years old, he began his five-volume Cosmos, a massive work in which he attempted to organize everything then known about the entire universe. Like Carl Sagen's later book of the same name, von Humboldt intended Cosmos to be a popular scientific book that would provide the general public with an overview of the whole natural world. He hoped it would inspire a wider appreciation of science and scientific study. A huge success, it was eventually translated into most European languages.

But von Humboldt's flame burnt out before he could finish the last volume — he died, still writing, at the age of 89.

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Alexander von Humboldt's Major Publications: Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804 par Al. de Humboldt et A. 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. (1845-1861).

Full name: Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt.

Date and place of birth and death: September 14, 1769, in Berlin — May 6, 1859, also in Berlin



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Map of von Humboldt's American Expedition
Map of von Humboldt's American Expedition
Map: Alexander Karnstedt


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