Alexander von Humboldt


Alexander von Humboldt was in 1769 in Berlin. He was born to Alexander Georg, a Prussian officer and chamberlain, and Elizabeth Colomb. Alexander was the second son of the couple. His older brother, Wilhelm, had been born two years before him. Growing up, the two brothers were often educated by the same private teacher and took same classes. Despite the wealthy aristocratic lifestyle he was living, Alexander was never really happy at his childhood home. His father died when he was ten years old, in 1779. He went to Frankfurt and then Göttingen to study finance with his brother. During his trip, he managed to establish contact with famous botanist Karl Ludwig Willdenow. His interactions with Willdenow soon arouse a curiosity for the world of plants in Humboldt and this curiosity led to a desire to travel further from home.


In early 1790, Humboldt published his first work, “Mineralogical Observations on some Basalts of the Rhine”. He then completed his study in Göttingen a month later and went off to Mainz for another trip, this time with his friend Georg Forster. From there, he travelled through Köln and Brussels to Amsterdam and finally England. He made acquaintances with some of the famous explorers in London, such as botanist Joseph Banks who had accompanied James Cook in his first circumnavigation. These impressions encouraged Humboldt to expand his plans of making a research trip to South and Middle America. He then travelled to Paris from London. In there, he found the opportunity to observe the events of the French Revolution. He was apparently fascinated by the political ideas of the Revolution. He then went to Freiburg to study at Bergakademie.


In 1792 he came back to Berlin. He started working for the Prussian Mining Department. He took a trip to Vienna through Münich and Salzburg to make further research on mining. In 1794 he visited his brother Wilhelm in Jena and met with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He developed a close friendship with him. In late 1796 he resigned from his position in mining department to realize his plans of travelling to Americas. In 1798 he travelled to Paris and met with botanist Aime Bonpland, who was also planning an expedition to remote lands. In 1799 he published two more works and then travelled to Madrid through Barcelona. There, he received a permit from the Spanish King to make a research expedition to Spanish colonial territories. On 5 June 1799, Humboldt and Bonpland set off from La Coruna for a five-year trip to the Americas with the ship “Pizarro”. They arrived in Venezuela on 16 July.


They broke up with the missionaries there and made a trip to Caracas and from there to Orinoco and Rio Negro. There, they proved the Casiquiare as the fork of the Orinoco, which wasn’t known at the time. And from there they went to Cuba. In 1802 they climbed the Pichincha and Chimborazo Volcano in today’s Ecuador. This was then considered the highest mountain in the world. Previously, it had never been proven whether a person had reached to such heights. The European public became eager to follow Humboldt’s research expedition.


On 29 April 1804 they arrived in Philadelphia. They were guests of President Thomas Jefferson for three weeks there. Humboldt and Jefferson commonly shared a Liberal worldview except for their views on slavery, which Humboldt deemed as a tyranny and an unnatural thing. Humboldt then made his way back to Europe, to Bordeaux and from there to Paris. He brought 60,000 plant samples of 6,000 species from his expedition, of which almost 2,000 had been unknown to European botanists. His trip to America shaped his future studies and researches.



As soon as he came back to Europe, he became known as one of the most prominent scientists at the time and he also became one of the most famous personalities in Europe. In Paris he became acquainted with Simon Bolivar, who later became the leader of the South American Independence Wars against the Spanish Empire. On 19 February 1805, Humboldt became a proper member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Humboldt felt like a foreigner when he first came back to Berlin after his trip, so he went back to Paris. Whichever European city he went, he was invited to numerous parties and events. Nevertheless, he moved back to Berlin in 1807. Humboldt started writing about his travels, which went on for years. This 35 volume book is today known as “Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America”. He also made various other publications in Berlin.


At that time, Berlin was occupied by Napoleon’s France. King Friedrich Wilhelm III sent his brother Prince Wilhelm to Paris to negotiate better terms of occupation. Humboldt was also ordered to accompany the Prince. Although the negotiations did not go well, Prince Wilhelm allowed Humboldt to stay in Paris for research purposes. Humboldt maintained a good relationship with the French elite during their occupation of his country, which aroused heavy criticism from the German people against him.


In 1814, the Humboldt Brothers accompanied King Friedrich Wilhelm during his trip to London. Humboldt tried to establish a network there in order to get permission to make a research expedition to India through British East India Company. He kept the dream of travelling to India for the rest of his life. He kept accompanying the King’s numerous trips for years after this. Although he did not like courtly obligations at all, he needed a stable wage in order to continue his researches, which was paid by the Prussian King. In 1822, in another trip with the King, he went to Verona. He met with the Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens Fünst von Metternich there. Metternich turned out to be an admirer of the scientific works of the Humboldt brothers. Although Humboldt, as a Liberal, was not much of an admirer of Metternich’s restorative diplomacy.


In 1827, Humboldt moved back to Berlin from Paris. He started holding open courses on Cosmos at the University of Berlin. These courses drew an enormous amount of attraction from women, and an unusual rate of women in the audience caused a sensation in Berlin. In 1834, he started writing his opus magnum, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Universe. He set himself the goal of depicting “the whole material world” in a great work and incorporating therein all his collected knowledge. In 1839, Charles Darwin made contact with him. He was a great admirer of Humboldt and dedicated his work “Voyage of the Beagle” to him. A year later, Humboldt became a member of the Prussian state council. In 1842, Humboldt accompanied Friedrich Wilhelm IV to his trip to London. He met with Darwin in person for the first time there. Darwin was working on his theory of evolution at the time.


Humboldt published the first volume of his “Cosmos” in 1845, and further volumes followed in 1847, 1850, 1858 and posthumously in 1862. During the Revolution in 1848, Humboldt welcomed the quest for reform yet rejected the brutal action of the revolutionaries. After Friedrich Wilhelm IV approved elections to a constitutional National Assembly, Humboldt participated in the victory celebration of the revolutionaries. In 1857, he suffered from a light stroke. Alexander von Humboldt died as a famous, but – after he has invested almost all his fortune in his research – impoverished man in his apartment in Berlin. He is buried in the family grave in the park of Tegel.


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