Alexander von Humboldt was a German explorer and scientist best known for his work in physical geography and for his exploration of the Americas.
Humboldt’s pioneering studies of the natural world were hugely significant in the 19th century, while the extraordinary breadth of his interests ultimately inspired generations of naturalists and scientists. Moreover, it’s said that more locations and living things are named after Humboldt than anyone else in history, including mountain ranges, animal species and a lunar sea.
Here are 10 facts about Alexander von Humboldt.
1. He was born to a wealthy Prussian family
Humboldt was born in Berlin on 14 September 1769 to a prominent Prussian family. His father, Alexander Georg, had served in the Prussian Army for which he was rewarded with the post of royal chamberlain. His mother was Maria Elisabeth Colomb, with whom Alexander Georg had another son named Wilhelm.
Alexander became interested in the natural world at an early age, and his habitual collection and identification of plants earned him the nickname ‘the little apothecary’.
2. He became a miner
Humboldt studied at the University of Göttingen from 1789 to 1790. From there, he prospected the worlds of geology and mineralogy at the School of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony, before procuring a job in the Prussian Mining Department where he set up a school for young miners.
He resigned from his post in 1797. In 1799, Humboldt travelled to France where, thanks to his social standing, he met with some of the leading scientific thinkers of the day. With the support of the Spanish prime minister, he was granted permission from the Spanish government to visit the Spanish colonies in Central and South America.
3. He spent five years exploring Central and South America
In 1799, Humboldt embarked on a five-year scientific expedition to Latin America, during which he made important observations in a variety of fields including botany, geology, meteorology and oceanography.
He set sail from Marseille, France, with botanist Aimé Bonpland, on a voyage Humboldt was able to finance with the proceeds of his inheritance. They travelled by canoe as they charted river systems and trekked deep into tropical forests. They made a huge amount of scientific observations on topics extending from ocean currents to mountain sickness.
4. Humboldt was the first European to climb Mount Chimborazo
Along with Bonpland and the Ecuadorian Carlos Montúfar, Humboldt was among the first Europeans to climb Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. He reached a height he recorded as 5,875 metres. Due to the Earth’s equatorial bulge, Mount Chimborazo’s summit is the farthest point from the Earth’s centre.
Humboldt’s climb of Chimborazo was a world mountain-climbing record, which held fast for almost 30 years.
5. He published groundbreaking findings on his return
After returning to Europe in 1795, Humboldt published his findings from the expedition in his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, which had a wide readership.
Humboldt and Bonpland had returned with a library of information, which they exploited for a range of insights. Humboldt also published on the social and economic conditions of Spain’s colonies, in which he denounced slavery.
6. He was a prolific scientist
Humboldt continued to travel and conduct research throughout his life, making important contributions to the fields of astronomy, magnetism and climatology. He eventually published over 60 scientific works, including Cosmos, an influential book on the evolution of the universe.
His pioneering work informed research in many disciplines. Following his study of Andean volcanoes, he contradicted the hypothesis that the surface of the Earth had been totally formed by sedimentation from a liquid state. Meanwhile, his collection and representation of meteorological data helped lay the foundation for the discipline of comparative climatology.
7. He introduced the notion of nature’s ‘web of life’
In Cosmos, Humboldt introduced a proto-environmentalist conception of the universe and the natural world as a single interconnected system. The multi-volume work was published between 1845 and 1847, and 1850 and 1858.
This helped to establish the framework for modern ecological thinking. His concept of nature’s ‘web of life’ was perhaps the first time that the interconnectedness of all living things was identified and described in scientific terms.
8. Humboldt lived a gregarious life in Paris
Humboldt lived in Paris until 1827, during which time he had many friendships and participated in the city’s salons. He had spent much of his fortune on his travels and his research, and returned to Berlin unable to support himself.
There, he taught the crown prince and served as a member of the privy council. He was also able to evade the suspicion of Prussian officials in order to organise one of the first international scientific conferences in 1828.
9. He died at the age of 89
Humboldt died in 1859 at the age of 89, having spent the previous 30 years in Berlin. The book that was the result of his last decades, Cosmos, was a success: it was published in most European languages, and he was working on its 5th volume when he died.
Humboldt is considered one of the most important scientists of his time, and his work continues to influence scientific research today. The mineral humboldtine, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and numerous species of plants and animals have been named in his honour.
10. He is remembered as a forgotten father of environmentalism
For his contributions to the natural sciences, Alexander von Humboldt has been credited with inspiring generations of early naturalists in the Western world. In her biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf describes him as a “founding father” of environmentalism, albeit one that has “been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world.”
Yet those who knew him were aware of his importance. Thomas Jefferson described him as “the most scientific man of his age”, and Charles Darwin declared that he owed his voyage on board the Beagle to Humboldt’s work. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compared Humboldt to “a fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.”