Alexander von Humboldt

On this date in 1769, Alexander von Humboldt, who would come to be known as one of the greatest explorers of his time, was born in Berlin. Humboldt and his older brother, Karl Wilhelm, were educated by private tutors in the classics, French, mathematics, philosophy, politics and law. Botany quickly became Humboldt's favorite subject and, even at an early age, he collected and classified insects and plants at his family's estate in Tegel, near Berlin. At 16 years of age, Humboldt attended physics lectures at a physician's home, learned of Benjamin Franklin, and ultimately installed a lightning rod on Castle Tegel, which the local orthodox clergy deemed "blasphemous." In 1792, at 22 years of age, Humboldt completed his studies in geology (a new science at that time), became an inspector of mines and, later, an advocate for the welfare of miners. Humboldt was introduced to Goethe in 1794, and the two became close friends and intellectual comrades. Goethe reportedly said that he could learn more in one hour of conversation with Humboldt than in a week of reading books. Restless and curious about the world, Humboldt resigned from the mining business, traveled around Europe (developing revolutionary theories on the geological structure of Spain), and, in 1799, embarked on an expedition of scientific discovery. He traveled for 5 years, visiting and exploring the Americas, where he became horrified by the practice of slavery. On this voyage, in addition to establishing the foundations of geography and meteorology, Humboldt met Thomas Jefferson, and was deeply impressed by his enlightened political views but could not reconcile that he nevertheless owned slaves. While in South America, Humboldt contracted malaria and was nursed back to health by cannibals. He wrote with dismay about their treatment by the Jesuits and remarked at their deep sense of humanity.

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt published writings of his travels and scientific discoveries, which brought him fame throughout Europe. He became an active voice in politics, supporting the 1848 revolutions, universal political rights, the emancipation of the Jews, and championing the rights of poor artists and scientists that faced persecution. In 1845, at 77, Humboldt wrote Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, hailed as one of the century's most extraordinary scientific works. Kosmos attempted to explain the unity of the Universe with naturalistic (rather than spiritual) laws, easily understandable to the public. It was never finished but it was an encyclopedic treasure of all that was known of the physical sciences in the mid-nineteenth century. Among Humboldt's other achievements, he was the first to raise anthropologists' awareness of the neglected Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations; he was the first in astronomy to observe a meteor shower with scientific instruments; for the field of botany he collected over 60,000 plants and identified 3,500 new species; his maps of Central and South America were the first for geographers; and in geology, he was the first to accurately understand volcanic activity. The Humboldt Current, a cold ocean current flowing north along the west coast of South America, is named after von Humboldt. Humboldt died at age 89 in the same year The Origin of Species was published. A state funeral was held for him with more than 600 people (including many students) in attendance. He was buried in Tegel next to his brother. D. 1859.

“One of the most encyclopedic scientists of the time, Humboldt was a Pantheist like his friend Goethe, and a contemptuous anti-clerical like his friend F. Arago . . . His letters use very strong language about the Churches to the end of his life. He calls Luther ‘that diabolical reformer.’ ”

—Joseph McCabe, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists 1998, p. 367

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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