A clue to his wide impact is in the many things named after him…probably more than any other person.
Humboldt did not consider himself an explorer,
but rather a scientific traveler, who accurately measured
what explorers inaccurately reported.
A few examples: Humboldt County, CA, Humboldt University, The Humboldt Current, The Humboldt Grove of Sequoia and the Humboldt neighborhood in Portland, OR….Andrea Wulf counts almost 300 plants and more than 100 animals named after Humboldt.
Given his love of mountains, it is perhaps not surprising that 18 peaks and three mountain ranges are named after von Humboldt. At 5020m, the Peak Alexander von Humboldt in Kyrgyzstan, is the highest mountain to bear his name. Feb 10, 2020 -Storymaps
He was a Prussian and grew to be a naturalist and geographer and adviser to many. He explored Latin America extensively, and made a trip to the United States and advised fellow natural philosopher (and President) Thomas Jefferson in 1804.
Thomas Jefferson remarked “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met.”
Humboldt was a generalist who was able to connect ideas related by many disciplines. His work and dedication inspired many well-known scientists, writers, artists, and intellects of the time such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many others.
Charles Darwin, for instance, referred to Humboldt as the “greatest scientific traveller who ever lived” and made frequent reference to Humboldt’s work in his Voyage of the Beagle.
Passion for Travel
Some might say his special talent was curiosity about the world we live in, others his love of travel and science, and still others in his ability to communicate what he discovered. Perhaps it was his ability to cultivate and maintain long-lasting relationships with others or his ability to nurture respect and admiration from the common man and foster a vision of what science could do.
At one time, Humboldt was considered to be one of the most famous men in Europe. His works have been translated into almost every language in Europe. Humboldt and his labors have been celebrated in many countries including the U.S.
If you had been around in 1869 you might have attended one of the many festivals celebrating the 100th year of Humboldt’s birth. If you were in New York City that year, you may have been able to witness the unveiling of a bust of his head in Central Park. Maybe next year on September 14 we should have a birthday party to recognize Alexander von Humboldt.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once dubbed Humboldt as “one of those wonders of the world… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.”
Describing and Measuring the World
Humboldt would travel and conduct scientific studies as he traveled. He would tote along equipment to measure everything in multiple ways. He would collect information about population, economics, weather, plants, mineral, agriculture, etc. often using this information to create maps. Expeditions typically included naturalists and artists who were creating some of the first visual images ever captured for a region.
Humboldt was adamant that everything should be measured using the best techniques and tools available and that this collected data should be the basis of all scientific understanding. He traveled all over the world conducting studies, mapping, creating travel diaries, and often consulting with world leaders (who might help sponsor an expedition).
In one expedition in Cuba, Humboldt conducted extensive scientific and social research. He began by surveying cities and towns, and collecting statistical population information.
Humboldt often made suggestions related to his observations. One suggestion in Cuba, for instance, related to the potential for developing the market for guano. Guano was eventually exported to Europe.
Thirst for Knowledge
Alexander got off to a rough start as a sickly child, who, at first, was a poor student. However, Humboldt earned a diploma from the Freiberg School of Mines in 1792. Even though he attended three universities, he did not earn a degree at any (Frankfurt [Oder], Göttingen, and Berlin). His focus was preparing for scientific travel.
Humboldt’s unending thirst for knowledge was sparked while attending Freiberg where he began his interest in botany. There he studied mining and plants found around mines, created a safety light for miners, and started a school to help train miners.
Expeditions helped feed the thirst for knowledge and were typically funded by state-sponsored enterprises and wealthy patrons. The expeditions were often lengthy and expectations high for information that might boost a country’s economic possibilities.
His extensive travels provided many opportunities to learn more about the generally unexplored world, and aggressively push this information out through printed publications and lectures. Unlike many other scientists of his day, Humboldt published information quickly and in great detail.
His publications demonstrated his universal belief in the “unity of nature.” This belief encompassed a holistic relationship existing between all physical sciences (such as biology, meteorology, and geology). He tried to explain natural phenomena through observation and data rather than religious dogma which was common at that time.
He was the first to take on the study of interactions and relationships between organisms and their biophysical environment (later known as ‘ecology’). Humboldt is considered be the ‘father’ of ecology, particularly for his work describing vegetation zones (geobotany) and climate using latitude and altitude. He also put forth far future concepts such as human-caused climate change, geology and formation of stars.
On many explorations, countries were particularly interested in having Humboldt look into natural resources such as mineral deposits. These minerals and materials included things like gold ore, silver, platinum, and eventually led to the discovery of diamonds in the Ural Mountains in Russia. Perhaps the most important thing about this discovery is that he was able to accurately predict the presence of diamonds based on his measurements.
A Visit to the U.S.
Humboldt frequently wrote letters to various leaders looking for exploration opportunities or areas in which help was needed. One such leader was then President Thomas Jefferson on the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.
The then Spanish minister in Washington, D.C. had not furnished the U.S. with information about the actual southwest border let alone other details such as population, military, and economics. Humboldt was able to provide that information and more to Jefferson, who was also a scientist.
During that trip Humboldt was able to meet with some of the major scientific leaders of the time including chemist and anatomist (Caspar Wistar who supported compulsory smallpox vaccination), botanist (Benjamin Smith Barton), and physician (Benjamin Rush who was researching South American cinchona bark as a fever cure).
Thomas Jefferson remarked “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met.”
Challenging and Wondrous
The exploring process was undoubtedly challenging and wondrous. He is known for several mountain expeditions, and conquering tall peaks. These expeditions and amazing feats are not what people may generally remember him for.
What makes him truly memorable to many was his writing and communicating. Humboldt took extensive notes during his travels on what he learned and saw, and created multiple volumes of travel diaries and publications.
Not only was Humboldt a good writer but also a good artist. He would often capture images of what he saw (such as plants and animals), and create first ever maps from the measurements he took and landscapes explored.
He was able to explore continents and create maps so more research could occur such as in central Asia, new Spain (Mexico), and Russia. Not many could have done this exploration and documentation better than Alexander von Humboldt.
Be inspired to observe the details of our world in your travels and share it with others! Even if you don’t get the credit!
“There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
― Alexander Von Humboldt
–Encyclopedia Britannica, Alexander von Humboldt (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-von-Humboldt)
–Wikipedia, Alexander von Humboldt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt), Botanical Geography; Alexander von Humboldt (…History_of_ecology#The_botanical_geography_and_Alexander_von_Humboldt); and Humboldtian Science (…Humboldtian_science)
–Good Reads Author Quotes (https://www.goodreads.com)
–Images: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/j-c_goersch/1137961438/) and Oregon State University Archives (http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab/tag/humboldt/)