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The Enduring Lessons And Legend Of Alexander Von Humboldt

Two and a half centuries after his birth, the famed German explorer and scientist is still remembered for his brilliant mind and boundary-testing taste for adventure.

Statue of Alexander Von Humboldt in Berlin
Statue of Alexander Von Humboldt in Berlin
Norbert Lossau

BERLIN — Never mind that he couldn't swim. Or that the murky river was ice-cold. Or that at 57 he was no longer a young man. He did it anyway, descending 11 meters in a diving bell to the bottom of the Thames. Why? Out of curiosity, of course. To satisfy his insatiably inquiring mind.

We are talking about Alexander von Humboldt, who was born 250 years ago come Sept. 14. For his many admirers, 2019 is therefore the "Humboldt Year," and multiple events are being held to commemorate the exceptionally dynamic researcher who continues to set standards in the world of science today.

With his worldwide research trips and contacts, Humboldt already lived and thought holistically in a globalized world. Many see him as the first cosmopolitan. Throughout his life he moved between numerous countries, cultures and languages. He was fluent in German, French, Spanish, English and Latin.

And his scientific work is unique. Humboldt wrote about 50 books and more than 800 essays. Many of the topics he handled are still relevant today. He was a pioneer in many respects — as an ecologist, climatologist or popularizer of science. The "Cosmos Lectures' he held at Berlin University (today Humboldt University) in 1827 and 1828 remain the most successful public events in this university's history.

Exploring the world

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, the son of a wealthy Prussian-Huguenot family, and grew up bilingual. The later Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II was his godfather. Humboldt spent his childhood and youth at Schloss Tegel near Berlin. He and his brother Wilhelm, who was two years older, were taught by the best private tutors in Prussia.

Humboldt studied, among other subjects, geography, botany, accounting, classics and mining science in Frankfurt am Oder, Hamburg, Göttingen and Freiberg. His professional life began as a Prussian mining official.

His later life as an explorer was made possible by the inheritance he received from his mother Elisabeth, which made him financially independent. He was able to finance his scientific work by himself — without ever having to apply for research funding. After preparatory trips to Europe in which he tested instruments and measuring methods, Humboldt left his home continent for the first time in 1799 and began his first major research trip together with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland.


Alexander von Humboldt's Latin American expedition from 1799-1804 — Photo: Alexrk

Equipped with numerous measuring instruments, including sextant, telescope, dial, barometer and thermometer, the two spent five years exploring the American tropics and much of the Spanish colonial empire — areas that now belong to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Mexico and the United States. Humboldt and Bonpland climbed volcanoes, wandered through steppes, navigated rivers and discovered the connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon, located the magnetic equator, and explored the 6,300-meter-high Chimborazo, which was then thought to be the highest mountain in the world.

"My health and cheerfulness have visibly increased despite the eternal change of humidity, heat and mountain coldness," Humboldt enthusiastically wrote during the trip to America. In 1804 he returned to Paris with countless boxes full of stones, plants, animals and various cultural objects.

For more than two decades, Humboldt lived in the science metropolis of Paris. There he wrote the Opus Americanum, which made him world famous. Humboldt was already a science celebrity during his lifetime. His second major expedition began in 1829 in the Russian Empire and took him all the way to the Chinese border. In total, he covered 18,000 kilometers.

Homeward bound

It was not until 1827, when Humboldt was almost 60 years old, that — after many years of research and writing in Paris — he settled down again in his native Berlin. From 1827 to 1841 Humboldt's address was Hinter dem neuen Packhofe 4, located in today's Museum Island. He then lived for several months near Friedrichwerder church in Werder-Rosen-Straße No. 3 and finally from 1842 until his death at Oranienburger Straße 67. None of these houses has been preserved.

Humboldt's relationship with Berlin can be described as ambiguous. On the one hand, the world-famous scholar as chamberlain and scientific organizer supported the king in turning the Prussian capital into a European center of learning. On the other hand, Humboldt often made fun of Berlin and its inhabitants. In his old age, he described the city as a "moral sandy desert, adorned by acacia bushes and flowering potato fields."

Maybe Humboldt's decision to live in Berlin was simply born out of necessity. He had used up his fortune on research trips and publications. Towards the end of his life, he depended financially on the Prussian king, until his death in 1859.


Chiranthodendron pentadactylon illustration from Humboldt's voyage to Cuba — Photo: Taragui

Humboldt was fortunate he didn't die earlier. Already at the age of 24, he almost suffocated in a mine tunnel, while he was working in Franconia. At the last minute he was found and rescued. A few years later he almost capsized on the Orinoco River, but he got lucky: He was not eaten by the crocodiles, nor did he drown — despite not knowing how to swim. He even escaped a jungle encounter with a jaguar. And when climbing in the Andes he just barely missed a cracking crevasse.

All this we know from his own writings. How much he dramatized the events to make them more appealing to the public, we cannot say. But he was said to be a master of staging. Today we would probably call him a PR pro.

A forward thinker

Humboldt's colorful character leaves room to plenty of interpretations and a great number have surfaced. Since he denounced the economic conditions and social ills of the colonies, he was picked as a fighter for the rights of the oppressed in East Germany. Humboldt was indeed an advocate of equality. In an essay on Cuba he wrote: "Without a doubt, slavery is the greatest evil that has affected humanity."

Sentences like these were probably the reason why the British and the Portuguese did not let Humboldt travel to their colonies. Humboldt wanted to explore India and the Himalayas but was denied access.


Alexander Von Humboldt later in life — Photo: Verlag von L. Haase & Co.

While Humboldt was considered a socialist — almost a German Che Guevara — at the same time in West Germany he was celebrated as a representative of an open-minded cosmopolitan outlook. In Humboldt one can also see a model for the Indiana Jones movie character or the prototype of a global networker who is open to the views of other countries and their people.

Humboldt exchanged letters with a worldwide network. Thousands of letters have survived, letters in which he received information from scholars around the world. But they weren't all just scientific exchanges. There were also mentions of job vacancies and other tips. A young researcher in this network, who later became world famous, was Charles Darwin. He adored Humboldt and enthusiastically read his writings. The same idea of a worldwide network of excellent researchers is what drives the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation nowadays.

Humboldt can also be seen as a pioneer of science communication or ecological thinking. "Today he would probably tweet — against climate change skeptics, propagators of fake news and against populists," says Professor Hans-Christian Pape, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. "Maybe he would even get into a Twitter fight with Donald Trump, who knows?"

Seeing the big picture

Alexander von Humboldt was an enlightened European scholar who had read his Kant. His self-image as a researcher was inextricably linked to his expeditions. "Full of restlessness and excitement, I never rejoice over what I've achieved, and I'm only happy when I do something new, three things at a time," he wrote in 1806.

Already at a young age, Humboldt was a lateral thinker and his worldview was holistic. Even if he collected huge amounts of data during his travels, Humboldt, as a researcher, was ultimately less concerned with the single phenomena, but rather with their fundamental, higher relationships. "Everything is interaction," he wrote in 1803. No scientist would contradict him there today.

Humboldt had, he said of himself, a "state of mind of moral unrest." He was inspired to attain more and more knowledge, share it with others, and spread it as widely as possible. His listeners and addressees included presidents, kings and even the Russian emperor. But he also wanted to reach common people with public lectures. "Ideas can only be useful if they come alive in many minds," he said.

Already at 27, Alexander von Humboldt described science as "physique du monde," whereby he understood nature as the unity of all phenomena, of inanimate matter and living beings. The guiding principle to which he remained faithful throughout his life was the inner connection between nature and culture. His most famous work is Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, in which he presents an overall view of his exploration of the world. The five volumes appeared between 1845 and 1862. The fifth volume, published three years after his death, remained incomplete.

Humboldt was a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and the Paris Académie des Sciences, also Prussian chamberlain and political advisor. His reports and recommendations to the Prussian Ministry of Culture gave Humboldt a direct influence on the state's university and appointments policy. He also campaigned for young artists, scholars and explorers in Prussia and France.

In 1860, a year after his death, the Prussian Academy of Science created in his memory the "Humboldt Foundation for Nature Research and Travel," from which the present Alexander von Humboldt Foundation emerged.

How his name lives on:

- the Patagonian Skunk (Conepatus humboldtii)

- Mount Humboldt in New Caledonia

- Humboldt Bay in California

- Humboldt River in Nevada

- the Humboldt Current in the west coast of the Americas

-the Humboldthöhe hill in the Volkspark Humboldthain in Berlin

- the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Bonn)

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